Meeke determined to fight on in Toyota points pursuit
A cagey Kris Meeke survived a day of drama to sit in sixth place after the first leg of Rally Italia in Sardinia, a day where world championship leader Sebastien Ogier was forced to retire his Citroen with broken steering.
In trouble, too, was one of Ogier's main rivals for the 2019 title, Thierry Neuville, as well as Meeke's Toyota team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
The narrow, abrasive stages of the Sardinian forests proved a tough challenge, especially for the drivers at the top championship positions and running at the front of the field. They faced the worst of the hot, dusty conditions, having to sweep away the loose gravel from the top surface.
It benefited those further back in the starting order and saw Hyundai's Dani Sordo lead overnight, 10 seconds ahead of the Ford of Teemu Suninen.
But Toyota's No.1 driver Ott Tanak, winner of the previous two rounds and second in the title chase, put in another strong performance to hold third place just half-a-second behind Suninen. Hyundai's Andreas Mikkelsen and the Ford of former Ulster Rally winner Elfyn Evans were fourth and fifth ahead of Meeke.
Having sat out Sardinia last year, after being sacked by Citroen, the Ulsterman opted for a careful approach to yesterday's opening loop of stages but picked up the pace on the second pass through the same stages later in the day.
He and co-driver Seb Marshall were 29 seconds behind Sordo. "The morning was tricky, as I'd expected after missing the rally twice in the last three years, but the afternoon wasn't bad at all," Meeke said at the end of the leg.
"We had quite a decent rhythm and the times improved, although the guys behind us were quick again so it looked as though the roads were still cleaning a bit in the afternoon.
"We did have one little stall at a hairpin, too, which cost us a few seconds but other than that it wasn't so bad."
But the pressure was still on after Meeke crashed out on the final stage of the previous round, Rally Portugal, spoiling Toyota's hopes of a first one-two finish of the season. The demise of Latvala made it all the more important that he provides back-up for Tanak.
"We have to keep pushing and fighting for every second. Unfortunately Jari-Matti had his problems when he was in a great position, so it's really important for the team that we take every point possible," Meeke added.
The Finn had led early on but then rolled his Yaris on a hairpin and although he got the car back on its wheels Latvala had to be treated for heat exhaustion at the end of the stage. Worse was to follow when the Toyota stopped on the last stage of the day.
Ogier's Citroen hit a rock on the fifth stage, breaking a steering arm and forcing his retirement. Neuville damaged the radiator of his Hyundai but made it to the end of the leg in seventh place.