Meeke dream given Kris of life by Vouilloz
If Kris Meeke goes on to win the Intercontinental Rally Challenge he will surely share the celebratory champagne with Peugeot team-mate Nicolas Vouilloz.
It was reigning IRC champion Vouilloz who gifted Meeke two precious points at the end of the Asturias Rally in Spain at the weekend, ensuring the Dungannon driver remains top of the standings — albeit by just a point — with two rounds remaining.
In one of the most dramatic, unpredictable rounds of the series so far, Meeke fought his way back from a fourth stage puncture, and 21st place, to finish third behind his arch-rival for the title, Skoda's Jan Kopecky.
He was also 38 seconds behind Vouilloz but the Frenchman checked into the final control four minutes late and incurred 40 seconds in road penalties, a move which promoted Meeke to second.
Team orders? Apparently not. I understand it was left to Vouilloz to decide. And in a season where he has been over-shadowed by IRC newcomer Meeke and his title has already gone, Vouilloz chose to put the Peugeot team first.
But on a rally where punctures played a decisive role, Kopecky was the only one of the main players to come through unscathed. All three Kronos Peugeots of Meeke, Vouilloz and Freddy Loix suffered as did the Proton of Guy Wilks and the Skoda of local hero Alberto Hevia, who led the rally for a time.
But Meeke was the first to fall victim to the sharp edges to the Spanish roads, the wall of a tyre being sliced as he dropped a wheel of his Peugeot 207 off the tarmac. It was so early in the rally, and on one of its longest stages, he and co-driver Paul Nagle elected to stop and change the wheel rather than risk damaging the car.
It cost them a fraction under three minutes and, coupled with a sluggish engine — the result of a broken fuel injector which was replaced after five stages — left them in real trouble.
But in a typical battling performance, Meeke clawed his way back up the leaderboard.
Seventh at the end of day one, the Dungannon driver blazed past his team-mate Loix and Italian Corrado Fontana on the second morning and he gained another place when overnight leader Giandomenica Basso crashed his Abarth Punto and lost six minutes.
Hervia, who was playing the team game too, dropping back to shadow team-mate Kopecky, fell victim to a puncture on the penultimate stage and Meeke gratefully accepted third.
But with Vouilloz's generous gesture, Meeke inherited a fortunate second place and remains series leader. However, he will take heart from the fact he lost two minutes 47 seconds to Kopecky with his early puncture and finished two minutes 46.9 seconds behind the Czech at the finish. What a battle it might have been.
Now they move on to Italy and the penultimate round of the championship, the San Remo Rally, in 12 days time.
Meanwhile, Sean Devine romped to a second successive Northern Ireland championship win on the Lakeland Stages Rally in Fermanagh.
He was largely unchallenged, taking the victory in his WRC Subaru Impreza by over 50 seconds from the production Mitsubishis of Alastair Fisher and Jonny Greer.