CITROËN driver Kris Meeke escaped a heart-stopping off-road plunge less than a kilometer from the finish to claim victory in Rally Guanajuato Mexico today.
With 37.2 seconds in hand after leading for three days, a career-fourth FIA World Rally Championship win appeared to be a formality for the Northern Irishman until his Citroen C3 ran wide on a fast right-hand bend and careered into a spectator car park.
Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle threaded their way through randomly-parked cars until they found a gap between trees and rejoined the stage with no more obvious damage than a flat tyre.
“I’m a lucky, lucky boy,” a clearly-shaken Meeke said as he absorbed the reality of a 13.8 sec. win over world champion Sébastien Ogier.
One of the most sensational finishes in the WRC – not matched since Ogier crashed from certain victory on the last stage of Rally Spain in 2015 – delivered Meeke and his team a much-needed result after miserable performances in the first two rounds of the 2017 season.
Finishing third and winning the event-closing Power Stage for Hyundai, Thierry Neuville was another to redeem his fortunes after two bad rounds.
With Ogier winning for M-Sport Ford in Monte-Carlo and Jari-Matti Latvala for Toyota in Sweden, the Mexico result proves the championship is wide open under regulation changes that required all the top teams to field all-new, faster cars this year.
Ogier, driving a Ford Fiesta in pursuit of his fifth consecutive world title, leads the championship after three of the 13 rounds by eight points from Jari-Matti Latvala.
The season will finish at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 16-19 November.
Meeke explained he had been caught out by a bump in the road 750 metres before the finish, having led most of the event’s 370km over gravel roads climbing to 2700 metres in plus-30 degree temperatures.
“I’m a lucky boy. That’s certainly one way to finish a rally and I didn’t need that, but we’re okay.
“I was desperately trying to trying to find my way out of the parked cars and find a gap in the hedge. A lot of things went my way,” he said as he raised his eyes toward heaven.
“I think I might end up telling this story hundreds of times. I’m annoyed with myself for making that mistake. I quickly looked to get back on the road because I knew we could still win.”
Meeke’s error left Ogier regretting his own mistake: a spin on Saturday that cost more time than he lost by today.
Ott Tänak maintained his consistent start to the campaign with fourth in another Fiesta, more than a minute clear of a frustrated Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi suffered several technical problems with his Hyundai but this was his best result of the season.
Toyota Gazoo teammates Latvala and Juho Hänninen finished sixth and seventh. An overheating engine and brake problems on his Yaris slowed Latvala, while his Finnish countryman suffered sickness throughout the event.
WRC2 honours were decided on the penultimate stage when Skoda’s Pontus Tidemand took the lead from M-Sport’s Eric Camilli after a titanic contest across the weekend.
The championship heads next to the Mediterranean island of Corsica for the Che Guevara Energy Drink Tour de Corse on 6-9 April, the first pure tarmac round of the year and yet another different test for the exciting new-era WRC cars.
Final standings, Rally Guanajuato Mexico (WRC round 3 of 13):
1 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) 3h22m04.6s
2 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) +13.8s
3 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +59.7s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m18.3s
5 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3m32.9s
6 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miika Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4m40.3s
7 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +5m06.2s
8 Dani Sordo/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +5m22.7s
9 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +8m41.8s
10 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +10m51.9s
Drivers World Championship:
1 Sébastien Ogier 66 points
2 Jari-Matti Latvala 58
3 Ott Tanak 48
4 Dani Sordo 30
5 Thierry Neuville 28
6 Kris Meeke 27
7 Craig Breen 20
8 Elfyn Evans 20
9 Hayden Paddon 17
10 Stephane Lefebvre 10
Manufacturers’ World Championship:
1 M-Sport WRT 103 points
2 Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 67
3 Hyundai Motorsport 65
4 Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT 55