How does Tänak’s return impact Neuville’s ambition?

Luke Barry ponders if the Belgian will ever have a better shot at a WRC title than 2023 again


With five runner-up finishes in the World Rally Championship to-date, Thierry Neuville has a bit of a reputation as a ‘nearly man.’ No driver has finished second in the championship more than the Belgian – a particularly galling statistic considering he’s yet to win the thing.

Could you argue that 2023 was his best opportunity yet to become world champion? Certainly – we definitely did before the season got underway. And that theory only looks stronger with the benefit of hindsight, now we know how early Hyundai was willing to throw its weight behind Neuville’s drivers’ title bid.

It was round two, in case you’d forgotten.

The thinking was clear. With Esapekka Lappi joining from Toyota but taking on his first proper full season program since 2019 (2020 Lappi was a full-time driver but the COVID-shortened calendar comprised just seven rounds – as many as he did in 2022), Neuville’s status as number one driver was assured.

Hyundai was arguably too quick to nail its colors to the one mast, most likely surprised that Lappi’s performance level was higher than probably even the most passionate of his supporters could have expected, but two rounds from home Neuville is a clear 57 points up the road from his team-mate. So it’s not as if Hyundai backed the wrong horse.

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But for another year the title has gone begging for Neuville, who trails points leader and reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä by 62 points with 60 left on the table.

In fairness to Thierry, there’s not too much he could have done differently this campaign. He made the somewhat bold claim after the Acropolis – an event he retired from the lead from with steering damage following an impact through a hole – that he should have had a podium on nearly all the events, but for mechanical dramas and the occasional driving mistakes like in Croatia.

And as we explored here, his claim does stack up, even if it’s a bit of a cul-de-sac of an argument given ifs, buts and maybes will only ever be just that.

But unlike in 2017, for example, where he was probably too early in his career to be in a championship-leading position and let a golden chance slip, and then the same in 2018, Neuville didn’t completely throw this one away.

Rovanperä, and his Toyota, have had that little edge over everybody which is why the Finn will, barring any disaster, become a two-time champion this year.


The worrying part for Neuville though is he’s potentially lost his shot at being in this luxurious internal position, as next term there’s the re-arrival of Ott Tänak to factor in.

Although Tänak would tell you differently, there was no clearly-defined number one driver at Hyundai when they were last paired together in 2022. New team principal Cyril Abiteboul may have elevated Neuville’s status for 2023, but he’d be incredibly foolish and naive to do the same in 2024, unless the season reaches a phase where Neuville can still win but Tänak can’t.

None of that is to say Neuville is incapable of lifting a drivers’ title without the full support of all of his fellow i20 N Rally1 drivers, of course. But there’s no denying that it helps to have team-mates who won’t challenge you. Without the team order, would Neuville definitely have beaten Lappi to the win in Sardinia, for example?

It’s very difficult to say.

Tänak will return to Hyundai hungrier than ever for that second world title, and probably keen to prove a point after fleeing the team for an M-Sport Ford move which didn’t work out as planned.


Neuville has a tough enough challenge fighting the Toyotas. Containing that internal challenge only makes life more difficult.

Whether Neuville is world champion material is subject to debate – it can be argued he’s too error-prone, but conversely no driver can win 18 rallies and not be considered world class.

But whether Neuville can ever become world champion could depend a lot on how he starts 2024 because, on paper at least, his best (or certainly simplest) shot at clinching the championship looks to have passed him by.