The Scot, who died in a helicopter crash in 2007, was a key influence in Meeke’s early development as a driver. The Citroën man paid an emotional tribute by dedicating the victory to his former mentor.
There was double delight for the French team, who secured their first 1-2 finish in almost three years with Mads Østberg climbing the second step on the podium.
The British rallying revival didn’t stop there, as M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans produced a masterful performance to guide his Ford Fiesta RS, on its final WRC assignment before the next generation model debuts in Portugal, to third overall.
First staged in 1980, Rally Argentina throws up a mixed bag of challenges for the drivers from treacherous rock-strewn, narrow mountain passes to the quicker roads in the rolling valleys and plains of Punilla and Calamuchita, some of which are punctuated by a vast array of river crossings which swell to almost double their usual size in the wet. The pièce de résistance, the mountainous 16.32km El Cóndor stage, offers surly some of the most stunning vantage points for rally spectators anywhere in the world.
Whilst the fans were revelling in the views in Argentina, the outlook for championship leaders Volkswagen was decidedly more bleak almost from the off. World champion Sébastien Ogier was coming off the back of a trio of straight wins on the first three rounds of the season, just three bonus points short of a perfect score, and was highly fancied to challenge for the podium once again following his Mexican masterclass last time out. However, Ogier had hardly made any inroads into Friday’s series of tests when his Polo R suffered a critical fuel supply problem on stage 2, cutting his engine to three cylinders and forcing him to the back of the pack. His teammate Jari-Matti Latvala looked to be in better shape, holding second behind the impressive Meeke for much of the day, until a transmission failure at the death cost him over 30secs. This dropped the Finn into third behind an under-the-weather Mads Østberg, the Citroën man recovering well from an engine cut-out early on to clamber his way up the leader board. This still left him 68.4 adrift of his teammate Meeke who drove faultlessly over the same perilously rocky mountain tracks that claimed a host of big names on day one, including punctures and suspension failures aplenty for the likes of Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon and Andreas Mikkelsen. After his dramatic dunking in a lake in Mexico, Ott Tänak’s Fiesta RS ended up in yet another watery grave as the Estonian foundered on a submerged rock at one of the many river crossings, scuppering his front suspension.
The hard yards put in by Meeke on day one were very nearly compromised when the Brit’s DS3 took a spin in the hanging dust of Saturday’s opening stage. With his advantage cut by almost half and Østberg seemingly on the charge, Meeke’s hope of a maiden victory momentarily hung in the balance. However, the gritty Northern Irishman showed all of his steel and gradually repaired the damage, narrowly heading his teammate on Saturday’s final two tests to end the day with a 38.6sec cushion and on the brink of history-making result. The fight for third heated up in the Argentinian sunshine as the day progressed, with Latvala also spinning and struggling to hold the Hyundai of Dani Sordo at arm’s length. Power steering problems had hampered the Spaniard on Friday but his pace on day two was good. Unfortunately, yet more mechanical faults put pay to Sordo’s podium hunt when, on Saturday evening’s closing stage, he was forced to retire from fourth with electrical problems. This promoted the consistent Elfyn Evans up the order. With all those below him, including Neuville, Mikkelsen, Paddon, Tänak and Ogier having either retired or lost major chunks of time on Friday, the Welshman’s advantage stood at a healthy 2mins26secs. The championship leader’s prospects failed to improve as he shed yet more time on the final stage with broken power steering on his Polo R.
Sunday’s sprint finish, encompassing two runs of El Cóndor, was billed as a showdown between the Citroëns of Meeke and Østberg. Keen to secure a first 1-2 finish since Rally Finland 2012, team principle Yves Matton issued a tentative warning to his drivers not to endanger the result despite conceding that, in theory, the pair would be allowed to fight for position. In reality, the odds were always stacked too heavily against Østberg. Over half a minute behind with only two stages to run and still suffering the effects of a fever that forced co-driver Jonas Andersson to take the wheel on the road sections, the Norwegian was in no fit state to challenge for the victory and eventually came home 18.1secs adrift of Meeke. His efforts, combined with Volkswagen’s toils, do, however, see him snatch second overall in the drivers’ championship. The final insult for the German outfit came on the penultimate stage when the same fuel supply problem that had knocked Ogier out of the running reared its ugly head on Latvala’s Polo R. The Finn, coming off the back of two consecutive non-points finishes in Mexico and Sweden, drew yet another blank in Argentina as he was forced to retire from second. This paved the way for Evans to claim his maiden podium finish, although his progress was hardly serene as suspension problems reduced his Fiesta to a crawl on the event closing power stage. Considering his vast time advantage, Evans was unlikely to have been caught, but the result was made cast-iron after fourth-placed Thierry Neuville, pushing a little too hard, smashed into a rock on the live TV power stage, ripping the rear left wheel from his i20.
Finally, at the 58th time of asking, Kris Meeke can call himself a WRC rally winner. His hard-fought success after a somewhat nomadic career is not just a huge personal milestone but also a national one. Not since Richard Burns and Colin McRae locked out the top two steps of the podium at rally New Zealand 2001 have a pair of British drivers hit such great heights. For fans of UK rallying, the sight of Meeke and Evans standing proudly at the finish of Rally Argentina 2015 has been an awfully long time coming; but all the more sweet for the 14 year wait. Make no mistake, the might of Volkswagen will be back for revenge after an uncharacteristically underwhelming performance in South America. Still topping the championship after four rounds, Sébastien Ogier’s meagre 17th place finish here, one of the worst of his VW career to date, will only strengthen his resolve to push for a third world championship when the WRC action returns to Europe at Rally Portugal on the 21st May.
However, with the Union Flag flying high over the town of Carlos Paz, WRC fans all over the UK should take a minute to step back and savour a truly historic moment for British rallying.
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