What on earth is going on at Hyundai?
This is the question on most World Rally Championship fans’ minds after a rollercoaster Acropolis Rally. A highly entertaining (for us, not it) public squabble over team orders brought the drama as much as the brutal Saturday filled with retirements did.
But that’s not what our opening question is aimed at. The mystery we’re trying to make sense of here is a more positive one. How has Hyundai gone on a three-in-a-row win streak that culminated with victory on one of the roughest events on the calendar, with a car that had a reputation for breaking down when faced with a mild gust of wind?
Remember, the i20 N Rally1 didn’t so much roar into life as it did cough, splutter and capitulate. They were braced for a disastrous debut at Alzenau and they got one.
But then the signs were there.
Hyundai surprised us all by winning in Italy with Ott Tänak. Kalle Rovanperä, try as he might, couldn’t keep his winning streak going and the other Toyotas failed to put up a fight for long.
Acropolis, in some ways, was a repeat of Italy. Both for Hyundai and for Toyota.
This, of course, probably wouldn’t be the story at all had M-Sport’s rally not fallen apart. Again. I was braced to write about Dovenby Hall’s roaring return to the front that began on Friday.
I’d bought a ticket for the Pierre-Louis Loubet hype train and was braced to ride it all the way to Eleftherohori – even if I knew deep down it would pull into the station behind Sébastien Loeb and the best of the i20 N Rally1s.
But, as has become the depressing norm for M-Sport lately, rallying found a way to ruin its weekend yet again. Loeb was all set to challenge for the top spot for the fourth time in as many rallies. And again, like in Kenya, the car hit trouble on Friday.
How Hyundai felt in January must be how M-Sport feels today. Every rally, a new problem crops up. As for Toyota? It’ll probably be fine, for now at least – winning for fun earlier in the season is a useful cushion for things going awry in the fall.
But when Loeb’s alternator cried enough and Loubet’s front-left took a beating from the unforgiving rockery that the Acropolis considers a road, suddenly Hyundai was in a position it could only have dreamed about nine months ago.
Rovanperä’s previously deep well of luck, by comparison, had finally run dry.
He’d gone wide on the first corner of Safari Rally Kenya and survived a near-rollover, then gone on to win. He’d suffered a hybrid outage on Sweden when leading – but so did his team-mate immediately behind, who then crashed. In Estonia, he clipped a rock at speed but faced no consequences.
This time, just like with his mistake in Ypres, there would be no free pass. He’d been struggling massively anyway, his Toyota simply offering him no traction when the throttle pedal was given a good squeeze. But running wide and clattering a tree would cement a terrible result.
Esapekka Lappi had somehow kept himself in contention near the front, just as he had in Sardinia. This time it wasn’t an unsighted compression that ended his hopes – instead a fuel problem ground his GR Yaris to a slow – a very, very slow and gradual – halt. But the buildup and next outcome was the same – the only Yaris in the show had bitten the dust.
There was only one Yaris left to try and break up the party. Elfyn Evans could hardly believe his luck when Dani Sordo came into sight, most likely thinking he’d be alone out at sea. Alas, his ship also sunk, running out of power.
Somehow Hyundai had inverted the script. Even when warnings flashed up about low battery voltage on Pyrgos, the second-longest stage of the championship so far, for all three Hyundais, they all survived. When Tänak’s hybrid had failed on Friday and his differential conked out on Saturday, he endured.
Instead of keeling over at the slightest hint of trouble, the i20s showed resilience. Perhaps some of the mettle the engineers and mechanics at Alzenau had needed to muster all year long, gritting their teeth dealing with flaw after flaw of its hurriedly designed and built cars, had crossed over into the cars themselves.
Julien Moncet certainly buys into that theory.
“Kenya was very, very difficult and maybe what we have learned in Kenya, how much we suffered in Kenya, paid off this weekend in Greece,” he said.
“Because it has showed us what we need to improve on these tough rallies. So reliability was really a key point this weekend.”
Hyundai isn’t surprised that it’s fixed the i20. It is surprised at how quickly it’s turned a disastrous season into a successful one. Toyota’s 63-point lead in the manufacturers’ championship isn’t wholly insurmountable when you consider there’s 156 left to score. That means outscoring Toyota at a rate of 40.38%.
Over the last two rounds, Hyundai has scored 38.46% more points than Toyota. And that’s with Neuville throwing away a near-certain win in Ypres with an unforced error.
This isn’t over. And that’s astounding considering what’s going on at Hyundai.