Opinion- Were Citroen Right To Sack Meeke?

When Meeke was “stood down” from the WRC by Citroen earlier last year it was touted as a chance for him to regroup. The then boss at Citroen Racing, Yves Matton, was vocal in his support for the Northern Irish driver and true to his word, soon had him back behind the wheel again. Meeke, at the time, was quite outspoken about the issue and repeated that he was there to try and win, that is what he had been told to do and he was not there to make up numbers. Furthermore, there was a general consensus that the C3 was a notoriously difficult machine, with Citroen even calling up Sebastien Loeb for a test to try and sort it.

Predictably, there was uproar on social media when Meeke was effectively suspended and this was replicated yesterday when the news came in that Meeke and Paul Nagle had been axed by Citroen- on safety grounds. A short, almost terse statement from Citroen Racing read as follows:

Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy and could have had serious consequences with regard to the crew’s safety, and given that the risks involved were unjustified by the sporting stakes at play, Citroën Racing WRT has decided to terminate the participation of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC. The decision becomes effective from the 2018 Rally Italia Sardegna and we will shortly be announcing the team’s line-up of crews for the remainder of the 2018 season. The entries of C3 WRCs for Craig Breen / Scott Martin and Mads Ostberg /Torstein Eriksen still stand for Sardinia.

Pierre Budar: “This wasn’t an easy decision to make because it effects a driver and a co-driver, but it is largely founded on safety issues which come under my preoccupations as Team Principal. We have consequently chosen to make this decision as a preventive measure.”

No thanks, no best of luck for the future, nothing. This coming less than an hour after Meeke himself had posted on social media:

“Hi everyone,

Now that a few days have passed since Rally of Portugal, I thought it would be a good to get back in touch with a bit of perspective on our accident – and to look ahead to the next event. Of course, you’ll have seen the pictures of our C3 WRC after the crash last weekend and the damage didn’t look too pretty. That’s led to a bit of an over-reaction from the wider rallying community, I’d say, because it probably ended up looking more serious than it really was.

It was my mistake, I know, and we went just that little bit too wide and then into the trees. And any accident where a rally car has an impact with trees has the potential to be serious. But in fact, the ‘scale’ of the crash wasn’t really any more than, say, Sebastien Loeb’s off in Corsica.

Citroen Racing builds a strong rally car; I know that and I have total faith in the team. And that trust was proven correct in Portugal because the roll cage did exactly what it was supposed to do – dissipate the energy of the impact, and keep Paul and I safe. The fact that only I had to go to hospital for a check-up after a bit of a sore back and neck – and was then discharged the same evening with a clean bill of health – is testament to that.

It was frustrating not to get a result in Portugal, in fact, because the feeling with the C3 WRC on gravel was excellent – the best I’ve had since we brought the car into competition at the start of 2017, I’d say. And it’s worth remembering that in the middle of a titanic battle, we were leading before a couple of punctures.

That’s a result of all the work that we’ve all put in over the past 18 months – development that’s been doubly hard to do in the face of a pretty packed rally calendar. I’m really pleased Citroen Racing has made these steps after the input from myself and the other drivers. Portugal was that little bit more annoying because it was my fault, too; we’ve actually had a pretty clean run since the middle of last year, and it’s only the past few rallies where things went wrong, for a range of reasons. It’s good to have the support of our Citroen Racing team boss Pierre Budar, who has backed Paul and I all the way, and is settling in well in the role he started earlier this year. So Portugal’s over now, and we’re already looking forward to Sardinia in a couple of weeks. Our starting position should help us again and we’ve a pre-event test coming up where I know the Citroen Racing team will be able to try a few more ideas on set-up, having learned more on the car last weekend. It’ll be good to put those changes and improvements into practice, and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to give our season fresh momentum again as we head into summer.

Thanks, as always, for your support. We really do appreciate it. Kris”

Meeke had been airlifted to hospital for medical checks after that massive fifth gear crash at Rally Portugal with many surmising that both he and Nagle were lucky not to have been seriously hurt in the impact, which effectively destroyed the front of the C3 (below)

Budar’s comments in the wake of the shunt were perhaps somewhat telling: “This was the biggest crash I have ever seen and the guys who have been here with Citroen for a long time said it was a massive one. After the crash, we saw from the television Kris and Paul were out of the car and then we saw the car: wow, it’s really impressive. When you look at this car, you cannot think that the two guys inside are 100% safe – and they are. They have no injury, nothing broken.”

Whilst most social media outbursts yesterday criticised Citroen for their action, some were more pragmatic about the situation. One seasoned driver suggested that it is a business- “Primarily, all professional “sport” is business with the simple business premise, deliver and we will pay, non-delivery…we will find someone who can deliver. It makes no difference whether it is soccer, NFL, rugby or even F1. Team owners need results to get a return on investment. There is no place for sentimentality or even past glories, Don’t give me the labour pains, just give me the baby.”

Statements like the above make one wonder that if Meeke did not hail from this island, would be be as emotive in our reactions- or would be have been calling for him to be axed in order for Breen to get more seat time? We are currently running a poll on Twitter, and as you can see, the majority are of the opinion that Citroen were wrong to sack their lead driver.

Regardless of the outbursts, where to now for the Dungannon charger? His pace is undoubted, but surely it would be a gamble for another top WRC team to put their faith in him, and to believe that the crashes were down to the recalcitrant C3.  Also, at 38 years old, Meeke is no spring chicken. His pace, however, is undoubted and he will be sorely missed from the WRC stages, as everyone loves a charger, and he certainly is that.

Leo Nulty

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