Meeke Out, Mikkelsen In
It's a nightmare scenario for the Northern Irishman, as the Norwegian nabs his seat for Rally Poland.
When I wrote about Andreas Mikkelsen getting a break in the Citroën C3 in Italy, I mentioned that this was a shot across the bows for the team's regular drivers. I must say, when I wrote that, I didn't really think it would have an effect on Kris Meeke but, after this weekend, it seems that I should have.
While a full event report on the happenings of Rally Italia Sardegna will follow during this week, any of you who have seen anything of the rally will know that the 37-year old Citroën regular had another nightmare weekend; rolling the C3, damaging the roll cage and spending the rest of the event on the sidelines.
Team-mate, Craig Breen also had an eventful weekend, with an off in his own car meaning a poor result. Andreas Mikkelsen, who had joined the French team for a one-off outing ended up being the top Citroën finisher, despite having had little time behind the wheel and taking time to adapt to its "unique" characteristics. It seems that this was enough to earn him a second outing in Poland, at the cost of Kris Meeke's position in the team.
There's no denying that Meeke has had a troubled 2017 campaign so far. His win in Mexico can't make up for the four retirements he's suffered, along with two finishes outside the top ten. There are a number of reasons for his troubles but Citroën Team Principle, Yves Matton, has seen fit to give the Brit a "break" for Poland in order to "recharge his batteries and release some pressure".
On one level, you can see why Matton may have taken this decision. Citroën are currently last in the manufacturer standings and he will be under pressure from the big bosses within PSA to score points. Mikkelsen may not have the all-out pace of Meeke while he gets used to the C3 WRC, but perhaps Matton sees him as a way to try and get some solid points on the board, while avoiding any substantial repair bills.
Could Andreas Mikkelsen become a permanent fixture in the Citroën Racing team?
However, on the other hand, many people are asking whether Meeke is really the problem. While he has had his moments in this and past seasons, he isn't the only driver that has struggled to tame the C3 WRC. The car seems to lack the stability and bump-riding capabilities of its rivals, which seems to have contributed to more than one of the aforementioned accidents. While Meeke was heavily involved in the development process, I think the team have to take some responsibility for the current state of affairs.
Given their years of success, Citroën Racing should know how to screw together a world rally car but, while 2017 was supposed to mark a triumphant return to the series after their 2016 hiatus, things really don't seem to be going their way. So, after the success of the Xsara, C4 and DS3, surely getting the C3 right should have been child's play? It's perhaps worth noting that all of those cars were designed before Matton arrived as Team Principle. The team's domination throughout the first decade of the century was down to two men; Guy Fréquelin, followed by Olivier Quesnel.
We shouldn't credit all of Citroën's success to these two men, but it does raise a rather poignant question as to whether the team still has the same skill and direction that took it to eight manufacturers titles between 2008 and 2012. While it is difficult to speculate about the technical ability of the team, one thing I must question is Matton's management of his drivers. The Belgian is not afraid to air his dirty laundry in public and this puts a lot of pressure on those drivers to perform. Meeke has been subject to this on numerous occasions and, this week, it looks like Matton has seen fit to do it again. He could have easily made up an excuse on Meeke's behalf but, instead, chose to give his lead driver a public dressing-down. While there is no doubt that Kris is struggling, I'm not sure this is the way to motivate him. When he jumps back in the car for Finland, he is going to feel like he has even more to prove, potentially making another accident even more likely.
One case that jumps out at me is that of Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn went through a tough period while at VW, where his head just didn't seem to be in the right place and his driving suffered as a result. Did Jost Capito humiliate him in public? No, the team pulled together, got him the help he needed and supported him through it. The result? Jari-Matti found his mojo and started doing the business again - something he has continued to do with Toyota. The same could be said for Malcolm Wilson and M-Sport. While Wilson is no pushover and has demoted the likes of Elfyn Evans and Ott Tänak back to WRC2, he does give them full seasons in the car so they know they have some level of stability and, even if they do drop down a level, the development appears to continue in the background, helping them to get back to the top. It seems to have worked too. Evans' pace has improved dramatically, while Tänak scored his first win in Italy. Cases like these do make you wonder about Matton's approach, that's for sure.
Another interesting story that popped-up over on Autosport.com was that Carlos Sainz seems quite keen to get behind the wheel of the C3 WRC and give his opinion. As a two-time world champion and motorsport fanatic, I can see why Carlos fancies a crack in the car but, given his experience in multiple WRC cars (including the Polo) and his current relationship with PSA, I think Monsieur Matton would do well to take the Spaniard up on his offer. Who knows, maybe he could give Meeke some useful mentoring while he was there.
In all of this, I haven't really said much about Andreas Mikkelsen. I am actually really pleased that he is getting another run out in the Citroën and I really hope it will help him on the road back to a full-time WRC drive. However, out of all the drivers, I am not sure that Kris Meeke is the one that should have been dropped. As I have said before, I do think the Northern Irishman could sometimes benefit from taking a more measured approach but there can be no doubt that he has the speed to match the very best in the championship. But, to do that, he also needs the machine under him to be as good as it can be and for the team to be 100% behind him. Sadly, the latter two requirements don't appear to be as certain as they should be.
Will this change be the right decision? Time will tell but, if Mikkelsen has an off, Meeke will be vindicated. However, if Mikkelsen scores a good result, the pressure on Meeke will increase ten-fold. Going into the fastest rally of them all - Finland, I'm not sure that's what he really needs. It's going to be an interesting couple of rallies, that's for sure.