David Evans: Neuville’s Solberg criticism was misplaced

Thierry Neuville intimated Hyundai team-mate Oliver Solberg gave up too easily in Monte Carlo, but he's underestimating what Solberg was battling


I’ve pondered this column for much of the last week. I haven’t spoken to either driver since the incident, but I have spoken to a few of their colleagues. Here goes…

Thierry Neuville, you were wrong to call out your Hyundai team-mate Oliver Solberg for retiring early from last week’s Monte Carlo Rally.

Solberg, you’ll remember, had been struggling for the whole event. His i20 N Rally1 was drawing in exhaust fumes from somewhere. The team was unable to find a solution and the 20-year-old and his co-driver Elliott Edmondson were driving under some of the most challenging conditions ever.

DirtFish spoke to spectators who were on the scene of Solberg’s accident on the Saint-Jeannet – Malijai stage. They talked of a driver who knew very little of what had just happened. The crew arrived at the end of loops with bloodshot eyes and bad heads.

Personally, I’m not sure they should have even got as far as Sunday morning.

Thierry, let’s consider the worse-case scenario here. Let’s imagine some of those spectators watching the Saturday stage had been injured, or potentially even worse.

What would have happened then?

I remember being enthralled and captivated by conversations with drivers from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s when they drove five-day rallies on just a few hours’ sleep, courtesy of a boot-load of amphetamines, cigarettes and a dash of vodka “to kill the fear.”

Those days are very, very much in the past. Different times, indeed.

Today manufacturers are governed and directed by the same human resources department that issues warning about the dangers of sharpening pencils. Sending a driver onto a stage when they can barely see straight is very much frowned upon. That’s why Hyundai Motorsport took precisely the right decision.

Part of the problem for Neuville was his own frustration.

As the Belgian told my DirtFish colleague Colin Clark, he’d driven ‘for his life’ on the powerstage and come away with third fastest time – 2.6 seconds slower than Kalle Rovanperä.

That wasn’t enough for him. His drive, he felt, warranted the full five points.

Soon after he started to talk about Solberg. Asked whether he felt the team’s decision was the wrong one, Neuville replied: “I think there was a solution to continue on. It was important for the manufacturers’ points. I don’t like seeing that we give up so quickly.”

Having given the medical context of inhaling whichever flavor of toxic fumes Solberg and Edmondson were breathing in, it’s also worth considering where they are in their careers.

The Monte was Oliver’s first ever full factory drive with his new team. It was, by his own admission, the moment he’d been dreaming of pretty much since he opened his eyes for the first time two decades ago.

Do we really think he would have given up on this so quickly?

DirtFish was contacted by more spectators telling us about the crew’s efforts to continue. They tried taking the side windows out of the car, but were told these had to be replaced in accordance with the regulations. They tried driving with the masks they were wearing to keep out COVID.

Solberg even considered a gas mask. He was only half-joking.

Here’s hoping the air’s cleared in every sense before we get to round two in Sweden.