Meeke curses his bad luck in Monte Carlo
Kris Meeke left Monte Carlo "disappointed but not disheartened" after a freak incident eliminated him from the first round of this year's World Rally Championship.
The Ulsterman produced probably the drive of his career, twice leading the rally and emerging as the only driver who could threaten the supremacy of triple Monte winner Sebastien Ogier.
The fact that Meeke did it in the three-time World champion's home territory of the Alpine region around Gap made it all the more impressive.
He and co-driver Paul Nagle took the fight to Ogier from the start, leading after the first leg on Thursday night and again for much of day two in treacherous conditions of ice, snow and mud.
Local knowledge of the constantly changing surfaces told as Ogier gradually edged in front on Saturday, opening up a 26-second gap, but Meeke remained his only challenger as the rest drifted further and further behind.
But disaster struck on Saturday's penultimate stage, Meeke's Citroen hitting a loose rock in the road, the impact tearing off the sump guard, breaking the inter-cooler and damaging the gearbox. These cars are built to be virtually bullet-proof and for a sump guard to be ripped off is almost unheard of.
The Dungannon driver explained: "The TV crew caught footage of the incident and I think if you look at it you'd have to say we were unfortunate, to say the least.
"We seemed to be following the same line as everyone else, the same line I had driven earlier in the day, but there was an exposed piece of bedrock and whichever way I happened to catch it, it pulled the sump guard off and caused the damage.
"It was a strange incident and it is bitterly disappointing to go out like that when we'd come through all of the challenges of this rally - the snow, the ice, the black ice and the tyre choices - and done everything to such a high level to fight with Seb.
"For sure, he was a little bit stronger in certain areas and, to be honest, I was struggling to hold on to him at times. But we did our best on a very difficult rally and although it was a disappointing end, I'm far from disheartened."
Volkswagen ace Ogier lent a hand in trying to fix the damaged Citroen, admitting he had been enjoying the battle.
"Kris deserved better and it would have been nice to carry on until the end. It's a shame," he said.
Indeed, the rally petered out, Ogier cruising to his third Monte win in a row ahead of his Volkswagen team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen with Hyundai's Thierry Neuville finishing a distant third. Meeke's ex-Citroen team-mate Mads Ostberg was fourth for Ford with his young French replacement Stephane Lefebvre fifth. Elfyn Evans, still smarting at being dropped from Ford's frontline team, won the WRC2 category, finishing eighth overall.
Meanwhile, Derek McGarrity made it a debut win for his new WRC Ford Fiesta, taking victory in the New Year Stages at Kirkistown from Desi Henry who was also out for the first time in his new R5 Skoda Fabia.
Kenny McKinstry was the early leader but a broken driveshaft forced his Subaru into retirement and McGarrity went on to win by 14 seconds. Young Kyle White was an impressive third in his little C2R2 Citroen.