Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul has told DirtFish he is fully accepting of Thierry Neuville’s exclusion from the recent Safari Rally Kenya, but feels the rules around illegal reconnaissance should be modernized.
Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe had finished eighth overall, and topped the powerstage, last month but were thrown out of the results after a car connected to the crew was spotted on one of the stages during a period it was not supposed to be.
Speaking to the media for the first time since, Abiteboul didn’t defend Neuville or Hyundai but said he felt the penalty was “harsh” but “it is what it is”.
He told DirtFish: “We are all learning, we are moving on, but we are not forgetting, so we also need to make sure that what happened to us is also not going to happen again to someone else.”
Illegal recce has always been deemed one of the worst crimes in rallying, but when that was put to him, Abiteboul explained that perhaps the regulations surrounding it should be adapted.
“I don’t want to start inferring that anyone is doing anything,” he said. “The only thing that I would say is that I think we also need to take stock that we are in a world that’s changing.
“I mean look at the size of your camera. It’s a very small camera, and there are even smaller cameras – you could be doing a lot of things with that.
“We are in a world that’s fully open, fully connected, fully where image is moving at the speed of light, so I’m just asking about the enforceability about some of the regulations that we have and I wonder if a sport which is trying to ban access to imagery, if it’s trying to ban access to intelligence, is doing the right move.
“Maybe we should simply accept that – it’s part of the world to be able to get intelligence about stages, and then it’s about whoever is capable of making the best use of that.
“Look at ChatGPT maybe, in the future, will be able to tell us where to cut or not to cut. All these things are happening, how do you enforce, how do you regulate ChatGPT in the world of rally?
“I’m not joking, I’m a bit cheeky in relation to that but you see what I mean. I think we need to make sure not to enter into a race that has lost before it has started because the war of information is a very difficult war to control and to win.”
Abiteboul – as well as his driver Neuville – has been one of the key figures pushing changes in the World Rally Championship, as a fresh face to rallying this year having joined from the world of Formula 1.
“It’s easy to be making comments and to come with a fresh pair of eyes. I have every single respect for the governing bodies, regulators, stakeholders, it’s a difficult sport to control. Circuit racing [is] super easy to police,” Abiteboul added.
“Forcing regulation on 150km of stages is super difficult. But I think indeed from a philosophical perspective, I believe that if we try to regulate what’s happening on stages in the same way that we are trying to regulate circuit, I think it’s a lost battle.
“So I’m trying to push a little bit the system, but I totally understand that the system also needs to react. I hope [through] this sort of me pushing a bit and the system reacting a bit we can be constructive in our dialogue and are not starting to create antagonism.
“I think the sport needs to change, I think we need something a bit more dynamic, we need a new narrative. I like to see maybe the fans telling the drivers where to cut and where not to cut. Why not do that?
“Why not do a hashtag: I support Thierry, I tell him where I can cut. I support Ogier, I tell him where he can cut. I support Ott, I tell him where he go. Why not do that?
“We are talking about fan engagement. We are talking about content creation. We are talking about user content, user-generated content. Why don’t we do that?
“These are things I’ve been pushing. I’d like to see what’s coming back and I think it’s good because we’ve got plenty of opportunities to explore.
“We like to be a bit negative about the WRC but I’ve been spending quite a lot of time these days looking at audience analysis and for me WRC is still number two in terms of motorsport popularity.
“And we’ve got millions of fans out there who could be contributing to the sport if asked, if steered properly. So that’s the sort of thing we should do.
“But having said that, for now we have regulation, we were found in breach of regulation. We accept, we deal with it, we cope with it, we move onto the next one.
“But equally I think we need to be a bit more modern in our approach of the sport.”