Kris Meeke punched the steering wheel in frustration as he let a first World Rally Championship podium finish slip from his grasp.
Despite having lost almost four minutes with frustrating mechanical problems, including a broken engine mounting, the John Cooper Mini driver from Dungannon had clawed his way back from 11th place to fourth as Wales Rally GB wound its way down to the final stage yesterday afternoon.
He had reeled in the Ford Fiesta of Henning Solberg at a ferocious rate during yesterday’s first five stages, closing the gap from 45 seconds to less than two heading into the concluding Power Stage at Monument.
But at little more than four kilometres he knew it was still going to be tight against the experienced Norwegian, brother of former World champion Petter Solberg.
But almost immediately Meeke was off the road, a wheel of the Mini catching in a rut and pitching the car sideways and into a bank.
The damage was not so much to the car but to Meeke’s chances of a first WRC top three finish since he joined the series six rallies ago. He lost around eight seconds and that was more than enough to allow Solberg to stay in front.
“I blew it,” said the disappointed Ulsterman. “I had pushed like crazy all morning to get the gap down and two seconds over four kilometres was just about possible.
“But I knew I had to push to the limit which means you can so easily get caught out. Unfortunately I did. It’s disappointing but fourth is not so bad...”
He and co-driver Paul Nagle ended up seven seconds behind Solberg as Jari-Matti Latvala led a Ford clean-sweep of the podium places, another Norwegian, Mads Ostberg finishing second.
The expected last leg battle between Latvala and World champion (again) Sebastien Loeb ended when the French ace’s Citroen collided with a car driven by a Spanish spectator. No one was injured but Leob’s DS3 suffered engine damage.
Meeke’s best-ever fourth place came on the back of an astonishing WRC Academy victory by Craig Breen, a win which earned him a prize of half-a-million euros.
The 21-year-old Waterford driver, winner of Rally NI last season, went into the final round of the WRC feeder series trailing leader Egon Kaur by 20 points, meaning he had to take 25 points for the win and set fastest times on at least 14 of the 17 special stages.
And he did it — just. The season-long duel came down to the final 18-mile stage in Myherin Forest on Saturday evening where Breen knew he had to be fastest or see the prize slip from his grasp.
In the drive of his life, Breen set his 14th fastest time, beating the Estonian by seven seconds, and was engulfed at the finish line by ecstatic Irish supporters.
“What a brilliant feeling,” he said.
“Fair play to Egon he made me fight every inch of the way but I think I deserved to win – I’ve been the fastest Academy driver all through the series.
With Alastair Fisher finishing third to also take third in the championship standing, Irish drivers filled two of the top three places in the inaugural Academy contest.