Meeke not mild enough

The British driver has been axed by Citroën for pushing its flawed WRC car too hard 

In Voltaire’s defining satire, Candide, the French author wrote: “It’s wise to behead an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.” The line alludes to the fate of the British admiral John Byng, who was court-martialled and shot by firing squad in 1757, having been found guilty of not doing enough to prevent the French from capturing Minorca.

Around 250 years later, we hear from France that another British helmsman has felt the sting of instant justice, presumably pour encourager les autres. You could argue Kris Meeke paid a big price in Sardinia for a small mistake. What Citroën would say was that he isn’t paying the price for the mistake on the opening day of Rally d’Italia: instead he’s suffering for other mistakes earlier this year – including, don’t forget, nearly throwing away his sole 2017 victory in Mexico. The reasons for these mistakes are well documented, but in summary they are down to a combination of the car being difficult to drive and Meeke’s determination to compensate for that by stepping beyond its limits.

All very admirable, right in the mould of Colin McRae, Kris’s mentor. 

Citroën isn’t oblivious to the failings of its C3 WRC, a car hamstrung by some old technology (especially when it comes to dampers), a relatively inexperienced driver line-up, and – at the root of it all – a shortage of budget compared to the halcyon days of the past.

Several solutions have been posited, the most recent being the arrival of Andreas Mikkelsen. On his first rally with the car in Italy, he finished eighth, eight minutes off the winner. 

That was hailed as positive enough to keep him in the car for the future, despite being the worst result of any C3 WRC that has finished without recourse to super rally regulations so far this year (excluding team sponsor Sheikh Khaled al Qassimi, who is not a factory Citroën driver in the ordinary sense).

This tells you that Citroën knows exactly how difficult it is to extract front-running performance from the C3. The team’s issue with Meeke is that he doesn’t seem able to listen to its requests to try not to. 

Yes, they’re asking a pure racer to go against his every instinct and drive well within the (rather constrained) limits of his car. Yet, counter-intuitive as it is, this too forms part of any driver’s art. Knowing how to win in a good car is hard enough, but it’s arguably harder to admit that you know how to lose in a bad car: to find the courage to admit defeat. And this is just another skill that drivers must learn.

Meeke has never settled for second-best – he always wants to extract the most from himself and the car. A strength or a weakness? In Citroën’s eyes, it’s a weakness. Had Meeke settled for anonymous safety rather than leading the rally, and brought the car home in a similar position to Mikkelsen – driving at a pace that he might consider to be very slow – would he still have found himself in the situation that he does now? It’s extremely unlikely. 

And that’s the pity about the current situation: it was entirely avoidable because it’s not to do with anything that Kris did. Instead,
it was what he failed to do.

“We asked our drivers to make it to the end of the rally,” said Citroën’s team principal Yves Matton after Sardinia. “Unfortunately, Kris was unable to adopt the pace required to have an error-free rally. After the opening stages, he felt comfortable in the car and said that his pace was consistent with the targets set. Clearly, he has failed to maintain it.”

And so here we are. There’s a precedent, of course. In 2005, Citroën decided to ‘rest’ its errant Belgian François Duval, who seemed oblivious to instructions from the team that were even as simple as ‘switch off the car’, which led to an inferno in Cyprus that destroyed his Xsara WRC after he slid off on some dry grass. Duval’s exile lasted for two rallies, during which he was replaced by two-time world champion Carlos Sainz. 

When he returned, Duval was a sadder but a wiser man: claiming three second places and a win from the last eight rallies and scoring points on all the others, en route to sixth in the championship. From the first six rallies, prior to his rustication, his best result was fourth. 

Citroën’s tactics with Meeke, while lambasted by many, might just work.

Ironically, Sainz has offered to help Citroën again in its time of need, but this time in a testing role. He was in charge of the initial development of the Volkswagen Polo R WRC – and that didn’t work out too badly. Now he’s a Peugeot employee, so there’s no contractual reason why he couldn’t test a Citroën. But is it too little and too late for Citroën and Meeke?