A single pothole was all it took to effectively end Thierry Neuville’s dwindling World Rally Championship hopes – Acropolis Rally Greece being the latest blemish on what has been a turbulent season for the Belgian.
With the exception of Portugal, Neuville’s 2023 campaign has consisted entirely of either non-scores or podiums – an inconsistent run that’s left him 66 points adrift of championship leader Kalle Rovanperä.
With a maximum of 90 left on the table, it’s likely the best Neuville can hope for now is yet another runner’s up spot (the sixth of his career in case you’re wondering).
At the service park in Lamia, Neuville was understandably downtrodden as he pondered what might have been.
When asked by DirtFish to reflect on his season so far, Neuville claimed: “We would have been on the podium on nearly all the events, but yeah something just doesn’t want us to be on the podium every time.”
A bold claim, but is it a disingenuous one? Could Neuville have racked up 10 podiums in succession and what has been his biggest hindrance this year: poor fortune or human error?
His year began well, with back-to-back third-place finishes on the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Sweden before a second place finish in México.
The first low-score of the season in Croatia was definitely of his own making; Neuville’s off-road excursion costing him a likely win. But given the tragic circumstances surrounding that particular weekend, few would be inclined to give the Hyundai driver much flak for that one.
In Portugal, Neuville was no match for Rovanperä but kept himself in the fight for the podium, and looked set to benefit from the assistance of team-mates Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi to finish second. That was until a gearbox problem on the final day left him limping home in fifth.
There followed Neuville’s sole win of the season so far in Sardinia. But the next round in Kenya was an unmitigated disaster for Neuville and his Hyundai team.
A puncture and suspension trouble forced him to retire on the first day. After rejoining on day two, the ensuing fightback was hindered by a spin and an off-road excursion, but he finished eighth and won the powerstage.
A respectable recovery was soon rendered meaningless as the stewards excluded him for illegal recce, a transgression for which Neuville took responsibility.
Neuville bounced back in style with impressive second-place finishes in Finland and Estonia on the fast gravel stages that had previously been a weakness. He was then leading on the Acropolis before the tough conditions took their toll on his i20 N’s steering.
When laid bare, it’s easy to see where the missing podiums were lost. Croatia and, to an extent, Kenya were down to driver error (both on and off the stages), while Portugal and Greece were due to circumstances beyond Neuville’s control.
Given that Neuville has been either on the podium, or challenging for it before dramas intervened, during every event this season, there is some justification to his claim.
Calculating the exact number of points lost is nigh on impossible, and perhaps futile given all the other variables involved.
But if we consider the positions Neuville was in when things turned sour, then he could have taken victory in Croatia, at least third in Portugal, third on the Safari as well as a commanding win in Greece.
Powerstage points aside, that is a 70-point deficit, some of which would have been at Rovanperä’s expense, that could have left him leading the championship.