Thierry Neuville often seems to find himself cast as the anti-hero of the World Rally Championship.
Fans are quick to get on the Belgian’s back if he makes a mistake, and he’s quite often the last to be sympathized with if things go awry.
But on the recent Croatia Rally, things were different.
Neuville set out his stall early, as he sought to deliver a strong tonic to combat the pain the previous week had provided for all at Hyundai Motorsport. All the neutrals wanted was a Hyundai win for Craig Breen.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen as Neuville braked fractionally late into a right-hander, ran wide and clouted a concrete pipe with the rear-left of his Hyundai which immediately spelt the end of his time in the lead.
But it was clear how hard he tried in the pursuit to complete what he called his “mission”.
Winning for him wasn’t the objective. Winning for Hyundai, and winning for Breen, is what drove him on to arguably outperform the capabilities of his car in search of glory.
If that’s not heroic, show me what is.
In that sense, it was almost predictable that Neuville should be denied the result he so badly desired. It all adds to, and builds up, the redemption arc.
But whenever Neuville does claim that next WRC victory to avenge Croatia, I hope he does so to the universal appeal and appreciation of the wider WRC. At times, I feel Neuville is, in some circles, a bit of a misunderstood character.
We all know how driven he is. He’s, without question, the most tenacious driver in the championship – give him a sniff of any opportunity and he will give it his all to grab it.
We all know how demanding he is, too. With the possible exception of Ott Tänak at M-Sport Ford this season, nobody is asking more from the team around them than Neuville is.
But does that uncompromising stance make him a difficult team-mate and co-worker? Are there two sides to the Neuville smile?
Definitely, Croatia showed Neuville’s compassionate side.
His words in the pre-event press conference – at a time when all in the service park felt broken and were struggling to wrap their heads around the sudden passing of Breen one week earlier – were considered and inspiring, but most of all heartfelt.
“I don’t know where to start, actually,” Neuville said, immediately grabbing the room.
“I think about Craig himself there is a lot to say. For three and a half years he has been with us in Hyundai, except for last year. There are so many things that have happened over those three years, many great memories.
I had the chance to go to Ireland on Monday, to see his mother, and I will never forget the moment when she took my face with her two hands and said, ‘I want to see your smile’.Thierry Neuville
“But I think mainly we are going to remember Craig as somebody who lived his dream 110%, who achieved his goals in life by getting into WRC and driving the fastest cars in the world on an everyday basis, that was his goal.
“He was living it flat out and that is something we are always going to remember. And not to forget his Irish humor, the tea he was drinking every time, tea with milk, and as well many, many hours we would always spend in debrief because debriefs with Craig were always very, very long.
“There are lots of memories we are never going to forget we were always joking and talking about. And that’s what I’m going to keep in my mind.
“But as well… I know there is a message we will have to transmit from now as well, not only for ourselves but for the people. And it’s something I realized we have often forgot over the past years or since I got into WRC, and it became my business, is first of all we need to have fun. And that is one of the strongest messages he was transmitting to everybody.
“I had the chance to go to Ireland on Monday, to see his mother, and I will never forget the moment when she took my face with her two hands and said, ‘I want to see your smile’.
“Craig was always smiling and having fun and she said, ‘you guys need to transmit that message to the people out there, the people who dream to do what you are doing, show them you are having fun, show them you like what you do’.
“And I think that’s one of the messages I also want to transmit for the future now and I’m going to work on that.”
Captivating words, I’m sure you can agree, from a driver who – aside from when Sébastien Ogier is around – is fast becoming the WRC’s senior statesman. Particularly when you consider the money that he has been raising for local charities at each and every event we visit for the past few years now.
Neuville may be more intense than some of his rivals – sometimes less willing to open up his personality to everyone – but that doesn’t mean he has no personality. Or that his personality isn’t likeable.
In many ways he’s the WRC’s answer to Fernando Alonso. Respected by many and relentlessly ruthless in competition, but not always warmed to as much as some others and therefore forced to play the role of the villain as a consequence.
But Neuville showed his other side in Croatia. Few other drivers looked as genuinely cut up about what happened to Breen as he did, so the weekend offered a rare insight into what a more exposed, less guarded Neuville looks like.
It’ll likely be business as usual next week in Portugal, just with more smiles as per his promise to Jackie Breen.