Racing lines: August 2018

Citroën has dropped Kris Meeke from its World Rally Championship roster… but its decision flies in the face of our sport’s very essence

It’s little more than a month since Citroën Racing dumped its World Rally Championship driver Kris Meeke via social media and, to be honest, I’m still fuming. Park for the moment the abject crassness with which Citroën handled the situation (don’t worry, I’ll return to it) and instead consider the content of the team’s statement and its justification for ditching – no pun intended – one of the WRC’s most exciting partnerships.

“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 catalyst was the pair’s crash on Rally Portugal, in which their C3 left the stage at high speed and rolled into a tree. The ensuing impact pretty much crushed the A-pillars flat to the door tops. Images of the wrecked car painted a bleak scene, one that on first viewing left me feeling Meeke and Nagle would have been fortunate to escape with their lives. Mercifully, and somewhat miraculously, the pair extricated themselves largely unscathed, but for Citroën it was the final straw.

Of course we all know Meeke and Nagle have had more than their fair share of accidents, but at the time of writing they are also the only crew to win in the new-generation C3 WRC, which by common consent has not been a great car. Of course Kris being Kris, he had to almost let that momentous 2017 Rally Mexico victory slip through his fingers by firing off into a spectator car park near the end of the rally, but that triumph and the following Rally Catalunya victory remain Citroën Racing’s only wins in the new WRC era. All of which suggests it is Meeke’s ability and preparedness to outdrive the car that has made the difference.

You don’t need telemetry to tell you he drives with his heart more than his head, but it’s that balls-out commitment that makes him so blisteringly quick. The parallels with Colin McRae are very obvious and unsurprising given that Colin was Kris’s mentor. Much like McRae, when Meeke is on it and the planets align there’s nobody quicker or more exciting through a stage. You may not enjoy that jeopardy if you’re running a team, but you sure as hell want to feel that frisson if you’re one of the fans who’s trudged for miles to stand in a ditch or cling to a mountainside all day.

Most sports have a Meeke. Indeed I’d go so far as to say every sport needs a Meeke. In MotoGP we have Cal Crutchlow. Capable of winning one weekend then crashing out the next, Cal’s success comes from giving absolutely everything whenever he throws his leg over a motorcycle.

F1 is a trickier comparison because you don’t tend to get guys like Meeke or Crutchlow in teams like Ferrari or Mercedes. Thankfully Red Bull and Toro Rosso see the world differently, which is why Max Verstappen has rapidly cemented his place as a champion-in-waiting, despite still being something of a rough diamond. Christian Horner and Helmut Marko could have pulled the rug out from beneath him on numerous occasions, but they have chosen to stick by him and take the pain in order to see him reach his full potential.

I’m not saying Meeke (approaching 40) has Verstappen levels of potential still untapped. Nor am I deluding myself that top-level manufacturer-backed motor sport is anything other than an exercise in marketing and selling cars. However, as a lifelong fan I am qualified to point out that it’s not wins alone that make a car or brand appealing, but the heroes who drive them and the way the team conducts itself.

When Citroën publicly stated it was sacking Meeke and Nagle it chose its words poorly, effectively saying they were a liability and that many of the accidents came while trying too hard when a decent result was out of reach. Funny how the Citroën top brass didn’t seem to mind when such over-driving dragged the C3 to a string of results it didn’t deserve. Throwing them under the bus seems scant reward for that.

Does Meeke have the mindset for metronomic success or the pragmatism to settle for second when a win might just be in reach if he pushed a bit harder? Probably not. Does Nagle struggle to rein Meeke in when required? Possibly. Whatever the flaws, it’s abundantly clear that they are one of the most exciting and talented crews in the WRC, not to mention the second most successful pairing in Citroën’s WRC history.

Rallying is a results-driven business, bankrolled by big corporations but fuelled by passion. It’s so hard to be objective about Meeke and Nagle’s situation, because they embody something deeper and more appealing than balance sheets and unwavering consistency: a very human fallibility fused with flashes of incendiary brilliance that even fellow competitors concede is something very special.

Carlos del Barrio, seasoned WRC co-driver with Hyundai’s Dani Sordo, expressed it perfectly when he said on Twitter: “Whatever result you collect, it is more valuable if Kris and Paul are your contenders because they’re the definition of braveness and speed.”

I hope Meeke and Nagle make a return to the WRC, with a manufacturer that better understands how to keep a lid on the bottled lightning they bring to every rally. If that comes to pass I have no doubt the pair will continue regularly to blow our minds and occasionally break our hearts – sometimes in the same stage – but I’m equally certain that one of their knife-edge wins will be worth a score from the remarkable yet monotonous years of dominance delivered by Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier.

Citroën’s top brass would do well to remember what Meeke’s fans and fellow drivers already know: that the true magic and lasting legacy of sporting competition is as bound up in struggle as it is in success.