Briton stuns with pace in Monte Carlo,
Kris Meeke would have taken last week’s Monte Carlo Rally to the wire if it hadn’t been for the gearbox problem aboard his DS 3 WRC, according to Citroen team principal Yves Matton.
Meeke, who was vying to become the first British driver since Vic Elford in 1968 to win in the French Alps, retired from the lead fight after a rock tore the sump guard off the bottom of his car and punched a hole in the gearbox. Leading at the end of the first day and through parts of Friday, Meeke was still chasing Sebastien Ogier when he was forced out after SS12.
Matton pointed to Meeke’s tyre option for Sisteron as the final Saturday stage and said that would have helped cut the deficit to Ogier ahead of Sunday’s finale.
“Kris was taking the supersoft tyre in Sisteron,” Matton told Motorsport News. “We saw how quick Stephane [Lefebvre, Meeke’s team-mate who was fourth fastest] was on these tyres. I think Kris would have come through and brought the gap to Ogier down to about 10 or 15 seconds.
“For sure, it would still have been difficult, but he would have been right in the fight to the finish. He would have brought more pressure to Sebastien and then who knows what can happen?”
Matton added that Meeke was blameless for the incident: “He was very unlucky. If he had cut the corner maybe five centimetres more, then it might have been OK. But this is all hypothetical now.”
Meeke admitted he was shocked by the impact, saying: “That sump guard is held in place by six eight-millimetre bolts. It takes a hell of a force to move those.
“As well as that, the impact punched a hole the size of your fist in the side of the gearbox. I’ve never seen anything like that before, when you had a look, you could actually see the cogs inside the gearbox. It was a big impact and we felt it inside the car, but it was in a cut that everybody was taking.”
Meeke explained the immediate aftermath of the impact, adding: “We got some warnings straight away and the power went. The intercooler pipe had been pulled off and straight away I could smell gearbox oil. It was pretty clear we were going to be stopping.”
Ogier was the first to commiserate with his rival.
“When I heard something about him hitting the rock, I said immediately: ‘It’s there.’ I knew,” said the Volkswagen driver. “I took the cut, everybody took this cut – you had to take this cut. On the first round, I
passed over it and the rock touched the bottom of my car. Maybe it’s different if you pass over the middle of the car, I don’t know. On the second pass, I took it a little bit different and it didn’t touch. But it’s unlucky.”
Ogier was also quick to praise his rival’s pace on only his third Monte Carlo Rally in a World Rally Car.
“I feel sorry for Kris,” said Ogier. “He did a great job this weekend, he drove very fast and we both found a good rhythm. This weekend was definitely a strong performance for Kris, I don’t know if it was his best one or not, but definitely it was a strong performance.”
Meeke was just 26 seconds off the lead, having scored another fastest time on the test immediately preceding the 10-mile St Leger les Melezes-la Batie-neuve test where his event ended.
“We were going well on this rally,” said Meeke. “Whether or not we could have taken the fight to Seb, we’ll never know – it’s fair to say he still looked to have a bit more. And, let’s not forget, the final day was always a bit more of a Tarmac rally and trying to take that time out of him in those conditions would have been hard. Having said all of that, when you’re on the Monte and you’re 26 seconds off the lead, then you’re always going to be in with a shout.”
Much was made during the last week of Meeke’s upturn in confidence, with questions asked over whether that was linked to his new three-year deal.
Meeke said: “I don’t know about that, but it does feel a bit different to how it was at times last year. I felt this kind of confidence on Rally GB last year and I think this is an extension of that.
“It’s different to earlier, to places like Argentina, where we took the win. OK, on the first day we drove in Argentina, but after that it was all a bit nervy. It wasn’t like that on this one, this time we were more relaxed and we were able to keep the speed and I could keep my head.”
Meeke admitted there was a concern of lack of match fitness. Once he’s through next month’s Rally Sweden, he’s not competing for the next two rallies. “Sure we will miss Mexico and Argentina,” he said, “and maybe that will cost some match fitness, but at the same time we’re going to be in the  car for so long that we will be getting some serious mileage. This will make up for it.”
The Citroen driver added that his time with the French team was also paying dividends.
“This is my third time in Monte with this car,” said Meeke. “This is a rally which is all about experience, so that’s going to help. And, don’t forget, the Monte has always been a strong event for this car.”
Meeke is hoping to carry his strong pace into the next round in Sweden next month.
“I have experience of Sweden now as well,” he said. “I’ve set some fastest times on that rally. I’ve got good confidence and I’m feeling happy in the car, so now let’s see what can happen. There’s no question that we will be pushing, it’s just a question of whether it will all come together.” Full Monte Carlo report, p20