Kris Meeke's dream return to the WRC after 18 months away from the competition was cruelly denied when he crashed during the final run through the inimitable 33km Ouninpohja stage on Saturday afternoon.

He'd been running in fifth position going into the penultimate stage of Rally Finland standing in for regular Citroen driver Khalid Al Qassimi, but then ran off in a narrow section late in the stage, rolled four times and crashed into a ditch. Meeke and his co-driver Chris Patterson were uninjured and quickly out of the car.

"I was in a corner and I went a bit in the loose [gravel]. I thought it would be fine but the rear got caught and we went off and rolled," he said afterwards.

It was especially unfortunate, as Meeke had earlier said how much of a big fan he was of the stage which consists of a mind-blowing 169 jumps in total.

"It's a bit like a rollercoaster!" the 34-year-old from Dungannon had enthused. "I drove on this stage seven years ago, but that was in my Citro?n C2 S1600. In a World Rally Car, the feeling is incredible because you're going as such high speeds.

"The atmosphere is like no other; there was almost no noise at the start, because the spectators know that the drivers need to be fully focussed before setting off."

Even before the Ouninpohja misfortune, Meeke had been in the wars after clashing with Qatar M-Sport WRT's Evgeny Novikov early on Friday. The Russian driver had hit a pile of logs during his morning through Palsankyla, and then pulled back onto the course in his damaged Ford just ahead of Meeke. A broken windshield meant that Novikov failed to realise just how much he was severely impeding the Citroen behind him.

"Some boys need to learn some lessons, it's not a little boys game," Meeke had fumed afterwards. "He needs to think more. I broke my wheel trying to get past him, I couldn't see anything, the windscreen is destroyed.

Adding to the Ulsterman's woes, the car slipped off the jack when Meeke and his co-driver Chris Patterson subsequently changed the broken wheel, and Meeke's hand was gashed in the process.

"The incident with Novikov has ruined my race," Meeke said later. "I asked him what he thought he was at."

Meeke subsequently received an apology from Qatar M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson, and the race stewards addressed the issue by deducting 23.7 seconds from Meeke's morning stage time to bring it into line with the significantly faster time he set in the afternoon run, meaning that he was once again in a position to challenge near the front of the field.

Unfortunately that came to an end in Ouninpohja, which hurt Meeke far more than the gashed hand had the previous day. "You cannot imagine the pain I'm feeling to miss the perfect weekend," Meeke sighed. "It has been fantastic to work with the team over for the rally, I learnt so much and it's an incredible experience to work at this level. I am sorry."

The question of whether Meeke's eye-catching run in the Citroen up to that point was strong enough to secure him a return to the WRC in the future remains unanswered. "I don't know what will happen next," he admitted.

"We're disappointed for Kris, who produced an impressive performance in his first rally in the DS3 WRC," said Citroen Racing team principal Yves Matton. "It's a shame he wasn't able to turn his good form into result by making it to the end.

"What he did until this moment was a great performance. I don't want to take a conclusion before I know what has happened,: he added. "Starting tomorrow, we'll start thinking about Rallye Deutschland, which will mark the WRC's return to tarmac."

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