Kris Meeke crashed out of the Rally d’Italia in the most public way possible.
The Eurosport channel was broadcasting live pictures from on-board his Kronos Racing Peugeot when the car drifted wide on a tightening left-hand bend on the 10th stage of the Sardinian round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
It caught a rock and flipped onto its side, toppling off the road and smashing down into the trees. Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle climbed out unhurt, but the accident was a hammer blow to their hopes of retaining the IRC title.
Meeke had twice led the rally, but was always under pressure. He was 12 seconds ahead during the first leg on Saturday, but was overhauled on the final two stages of the day by Italian Paolo Andreucci when he appeared to lose his rhythm and his confidence.
On the first stage yesterday morning he swept past Andreucci and back into the lead only to lose it again on the next stage to championship leader Juho Hanninen. He was chasing the Finn’s Skoda, pushing the Peugeot to its limits, when he crashed.
With Meeke out, Hanninen was able to ease back to ensure his second win of the season and increase his championship lead. Andreucci took second for Peugeot with Skoda’s Jan Kopecky third.Despite the disappointment, Kronos boss Marc van Dalen refused to blame Meeke.
“When you have a fight for two days like this and you drive at a 100 per cent, things like this can happen,” said van Dalen. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It could have been any of the leaders. They were all driving like crazy but Kris was the unlucky one.”
Meeke wasn’t the only front-runner to be caught out by the treacherous Sardinian roads. Sebastien Ogier and Guy Wilks never made it beyond the first stage.
Ogier, who won his first World championship rally in Portugal last week, hit a post on the first stage, damaging a wheel and retired shortly afterwards with engine failure.
Wilks crashed out, his Skoda flipping over and rolling down a slope. His co-driver Phil Pugh was unhurt, but Wilks was airlifted to hospital suffering from two fractured vertebrae.
Meanwhile, Darren Gass fought back from two punctures to win the Mourne Stages Rally, fifth round of the Northern Ireland championship.
The 22-year-old Markethill driver had dominated the rally in a McKinstry Motorsport Subaru, building up a 45 second lead, but two punctures on stages seven, coupled with a 30-second road penalty, saw him slip to nine seconds behind John McGlaughlin’s Mitsubishi. Gass charged through the final stage to secure his first win in the series by 11 seconds.
McGlaughlin finished second with Mark Donnelly third in his Mitsubishi. Stuart Biggerstaff took fourth to move into the lead in the championship standings.