How Neuville beat the local hero to secure a masterful Monte victory

The Hyundai driver outplayed the WRC's finest to secure all 30 points on the 2024 season opener


Would it be a real Monte? Could it be a real Monte with temperatures knocking on the door of 20 degrees on some parts of the route? Yes and yes. Most definitely. Granted, there was more sun than snow, but there was more than enough ice to add some spice.

Based out of Gap again, last week offered a great race, with Thierry Neuville and Sébastien Ogier taking it down to the wire. Ultimately the Hyundai man took the spoils, but the Frenchman delivered a performance on both a personal and professional level well worthy of a 10th win.

Thursday & Friday

Flares were very much back in fashion in the famous Bayons hairpins on Thursday night.

Sixty-seven days after Elfyn Evans bid 2023 a victorious farewell on planet Earth’s far side in Japan, the Welshman was back at it and bossing the opening evening of the 2024 campaign. And the massed ranks high up in the hills couldn’t get enough of it. Standing among them was spinetingling.

Sebastien Ogier

This army of spectators likely had more than seven nations in it

It’s the first time I’ve heard crowd-pleasing belter Seven Nation Army include the words: “Oh, Sébastien Ogier…” Rally1 cars on overrun are noisy, noisy beasts, but they could barely be heard over the crowd. Apple watches everywhere were warning wearers to run for cover as decibel-o-meters went off the charts.

It was amazing. First man in, Evans’ eyes widened as he tore through a corridor of bright red incendiaries and overhanging flags. It was undoubtedly distracting and definitely unbelievably cool. Right up until something caught fire stage-side and brought SS2 to a premature close.

Not that Evans minded too much. By then he was already 15.1s up the road. Last year’s title race runner-up had dominated the first two stages, winning both and looking comfortable on the cleanest of clean lines.

The unusually dry weather had left the roads snow-free and largely shorn of ice. Where once snow banks might have sat and curtailed corner-cutting, there was the potential to shave tenths off his own time and cost his rivals a second or two. Quite rightly Evans put two wheels on the grass at every opportunity.

The road got progressively more dirty with every passing car.

Thierry Neuville arrived into Gap at close to midnight with not a lot to smile about. Yes, he was second, but his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 wasn’t running cleanly. All three factory cars were hit by the same issue of an overrun on the throttle – far from ideal as they tiptoed into the new season.


Thursday Thierry and Sunday Thierry were two very different people

Returning world champion Ott Tänak went so far as to admit he was happy to make it to service. The Estonian sat fourth and he and Neuville sandwiched a subdued Sébastien Ogier.

Adrien Fourmaux was a promising early fifth for M-Sport, ahead of Toyota’s second full-timer Takamoto Katsuta. Fourmaux’s team-mate Grégoire Munster offered the British squad more reasons to smile in the second factory Puma Rally1 Hybrid as he headed Andreas Mikkelsen’s Hyundai in seventh spot. The Norwegian’s i20 was, like the others, proving a troublesome steed to bring to a halt.

The first full day of the season began in the village next to Ogier’s. The crowds lining the route to Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes might have been a touch more subdued than the previous evening, but there’s no doubting their commitment to the cause. This was hardcore support for the eight-time world champion.

The stage, however, belonged to Neuville. The Belgian was a touch brighter than the previous night, but a change of transmission at Thursday-night service hadn’t done a vast amount to improve his mood.

“I didn’t feel anything,” he told DirtFish, “but there was a small leak and we swapped the gearbox. More importantly this changed [back to] the diff – which I didn’t like so much on the shakedown and now I’m stuck with it. We can use the other gearbox, but we don’t want to take the risk. I hope I can swap back on Saturday lunchtime and manage the leak.”

Explaining the difference in the car with the new set-up, Neuville added: “There’s less locking [from the diff], and a bit more surprises under braking.”

Talking of surprises, a spin on the second stage caught him completely unaware.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “I think maybe we lifted a wheel and this sent the torque to the rear, then it was like rear-wheel drive and somebody was pushing the car around.”

Having cut five seconds into Evans’ lead in the Friday opener, his revolution handed that back and more to the leader.


There were no revolutions to Evans' approach, whether literal or metaphorical

Evans himself admitted to a cautious morning. That caution was accentuated when he arrived at the end of SS3 to discover Tänak, Katsuta and Munster had all visited the same icy ditch not far from the start.

Having just escaped the ditch on Friday in Japan, Katsuta paid the full penalty in the French Alps, shipping more than five minutes as fans hauled his Yaris back to the road.

Tänak was more fortunate in that his i20 slapped the back of the bank on the outside of the long and horribly icy right-hander, pivoting the nose into the ditch. Spectators were soon on hand at a cost of 40s.

“I was a bit wide,” he confessed. “Then I was stuck.”

The Estonian remained fourth at the end of Friday, 1m13s off the lead and no doubt eyeing up a strategic look at Saturday ahead of a potentially big points-paying Sunday.

But what of the local hero? What of Ogier? Three stages in and no scratch time? He put that right by edging Evans by a second on SS4 and then taking the best of the rest to the cleaners on the morning’s final stage. Fastest by 11.2s, he halved the deficit between himself and the leader. The pair would sit down to lunch in Toyota separated by 10.7s.

Talking of lunch, what did Neuville have? Whatever it was, it worked. He flew through stages six and seven, fastest in both, to reduce the gap to second-placed Ogier from 13.8 to 8.7 seconds.

“It was a good stage,” said Neuville. “Better than this morning. Better without the spin.”

Up front, Evans had a consistent afternoon – it just wasn’t the kind of consistency he was after: third quickest on all three.

“Maybe I wasn’t brave enough through the afternoon,” he said. “Some of the stages were quite dirty on the second pass and it was quite hard to follow the road in the dark on the last one. This rally never gets any easier…”


Cracks were starting to form in Evans' defense of the rally lead

Tough day or not, Evans still led the Monte for a second night in succession – but he would go into the weekend with a much-reduced margin of 4.5s. Behind Ogier and Neuville, Tänak looked to be a man settling himself down for a tire-saving Saturday before lighting the i20 up on Sunday morning.

Fourmaux maintained his fifth place with a mature and sensible Friday drive. Working on the Puma’s set-up overnight on Thursday, he was in two minds about the right way to go on Friday.

“It wasn’t so good for the first one in the morning,” he said, “but then it worked well in the next one. Like everything with this event, it’s a compromise.”

Asked about the early morning ice, he grinned.

“I like it,” he said. “It’s the Monte, we need the ice.”

One place further back and Mikkelsen wasn’t quite on the same page when it came to the ice. Feeling your way into a Rally1 car isn’t the easiest of tasks in the dry, let alone when there’s black ice in the mix.

Close to three minutes off the front on Friday night wasn’t where Mikkelsen wanted to be, but there had been progress.


If the leaders were a breakaway, Fourmaux-Mikkelsen-Munster was the peloton. But Fourmaux was on the verge of dropping his group

“Of course I would like to be faster,” he said, “but I’m still learning the car a little bit. In places, you look at corners and I’m thinking this wouldn’t be possible in a Rally2 car – but you can just stay flat with this [i20 Rally1]. The aero takes some time to get used to.”

Munster was a solid seventh, recovering from his visit to a ditch and admitting there were plenty of smiles as he learned more and more about the Puma’s potential.


Whisps of smoke from the chimneys revealed a village waking up for the weekend. The sun rose over the mountains to reveal Esparron in its full glory. Bright blue skies covered a freezing start to Saturday.

As the crews gathered a mile or so from the start of the stage, the drivers stepped from their cars and immediately rubbed their feet across the floor. Shiny new, start-of-the-season race boots offered zero resistance to the ice-laden lane beneath them.

After minutes in a ditch on Friday morning, Katsuta was first on the road on Saturday. Yes, he’d enjoy a clean road – but he’d also be the first to spot the worst of the ice.

“Oh…” said an intense-looking Taka as his right foot skidded far further than he’d thought it would.

The Japanese spent his day climbing the leaderboard while trying to gain more confidence in a car which wasn’t quite to his liking, especially on the second pass of the muddier stages. He started the day 12th and ended it seventh.

Saturday’s fastest starter? Neuville. The 11 miles from Esparron to Oze were covered in 12m12.5s. That was 9.6 quicker than the best of the rest. An outstanding start from the lead i20.

“I’m awake,” he grinned at the finish. “Very awake. That was a decent run.

2024MONTECARLO_RT_121 (1)

The Saturday morning version of Neuville hinted at what was to come

“I had a bit more ice than I had in my notes. Through a couple of places, I had surprises, but I could see from far it was more icy than expected and slow down the speed. It was the same for me yesterday – in one stage I lost 17 seconds just because there was much more ice in my notes than there was in reality. That’s where you lose the time. There was nothing particular this morning, it all just matched and the time was good.”

The gearbox decision? He’d stuck to the transmission set-up which had got him through Friday. Despite his fears to the contrary, a more open differential was clearly working for him in the horribly changeable conditions.

The biggest loser time-wise on the opener? Ogier. He had a shocker, dropping 18.8s after he was delivered a set of overly cautious ice notes. The Toyota man’s steady start was enough to drop him behind Neuville, who now had Evans in his sights.

Evans’ hopes of defending his position were stymied when his i20 was shorn of hybrid in the latter part of the day’s second stage. Neuville came past to lead by nine-tenths of a second. He furthered that lead in the morning’s final test when he and Tänak halved the stage win.

The 2020 Monte winner was all smiles when he arrived back in Gap after Saturday’s first loop.

Evans wasn’t as chipper. He didn’t want to divulge the extent of his hybrid issue.

“It was frustrating,” he said, thoughtfully, before adding honestly: “but it wasn’t the best loop anyway. It’s like that sometimes. Now we have to find a good rhythm again in the afternoon.”

Fast forward to the end of that afternoon and Evans summed Saturday’s second half up in one word.



The bright lights of Thursday night stardom had faded away by Saturday afternoon

It was kind of hard to argue. In 24 hours he’d gone from leading by 4.5 to sitting third more than half a minute back.

“It’s not been, of course, what we expected,” he added. “The feeling was not fantastic, but then not as bad as the time suggests either. So we need to find out why it is, whether I’ve developed some awful habit or what’s going on… But yeah, to be honest, in the mud later in the loop, I definitely didn’t feel so good and the gaps kept growing.”

Talk of Sunday’s opportunity was batted away with the intention of finding out what had gone wrong on Saturday before a final-day assault was planned.

Ogier eased by Evans with a scratch time on the re-run Esparron test which opened the afternoon. That left him just 2.2s off leader Neuville going into SS13. Ogier admitted he’d pushed hard, but added that there was a degree of concern over his selection of just five tires – everybody else except Mikkelsen had gone with the safer option of six.

Putting that risk aside, he went quickest again and, just as the sun was starting to set on Saturday, he gave the legions of fans what they wanted: Ogier led the Monte.

“It’s nice,” he said with a wry smile. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

Now it got interesting. Going into Saturday’s final test, under the new rules, Ogier was on for a possible 18 points with Neuville looking at 15 for second place. With a part program, Ogier’s demand for points is obviously less. His rival, still in the hunt for his maiden crown, wanted and needed every point he could lay his hands on.

Neuville charged hard, took 4.1 from the #17 Yaris, went P1 and snatched a provisional 18.


Win number 10 no longer appeared to be written in the stars for Ogier

“That stage was really good,” he told DirtFish later that night. “It was brilliant for me.”

But how much had that additional three points been on his mind?

“I would say 50% for the points, 50% to beat Sébastien. But this wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t feel that comfortable in the car. I think that’s a good sign for tomorrow.”

That raised the question of what to do with the gearbox? Go back to the preferred leaky one, or stick with the set-up which had served him well so far?

“I’m adapted to it now,” he said. “We will definitely not take the risk. The gearbox should be working fine, but with the oil leakage… if it go on the clutch or whatever it could cause some trouble.”

Ogier was pragmatic on Saturday night.

“It’s three seconds,” he said, looking at the difference between himself and Neuville. “Anything can happen.”

Evans sat third going into the final day, with Tänak, Fourmaux and Mikkelsen all remaining unchanged in fourth, fifth and sixth positions.

The only drama for that trio was the Norwegian-flagged Hyundai biffing the barrier after failing to slow enough for one of the day’s first – and iciest – corners.


One minute Mikkelsen was on the road looking at the scenery. Next thing he knew, Mikkelsen was in the scenery looking at the road.

So to Sunday – the one the WRC Promoter will bill as ‘Super Sunday’ from here on. With 12 of a possible 30 points up for grabs, there was plenty to play for… not least victory on the Monte Carlo Rally.


As a statement of Super Sunday intent, it didn’t get much better. Regulation change now means every stage on the final day of a WRC round really counts. Neuville was a man on a mission.

Crossing the line at the end of the third running of La Bréole to Selonnet, Neuville had that feeling again. He knew he’d done a good job. Glancing up at the timing board reassured him. He was right. The Hyundai driver was 4.7s faster than Ogier.

Helmet off, he took a moment to adjust his glasses. He sort of wanted to style this one out, to portray that he’d just made a good job of his first task of the day. He failed. And rightly so. He started to grin and then couldn’t stop.

“I’m happy with that,” he said. “We had a push and it worked.”

And what a push. Have you watched the onboards? It was spectacular as he took a 530bhp i20 and forced it down frozen lanes barely wide enough for the broad shoulders on a Rally1 car.

And with that impetus, Neuville set about the second stage and went fastest again. This time the margin was smaller – just two-tenths to Evans – but it didn’t matter. He’d built a seven-second Sunday advantage with just the nine-mile Turini powerstage remaining.

But now another dilemma. Everything was still at risk. Nothing was done. He could take a measured approach to the finale, maybe pick up a couple of points, and ride out of town with 27 or 28 points.

2024MONTECARLO_RT_071 (2)

The trophy was within reach. But silverware wasn't enough. Neuville was ready to go all in.

Or he could push on and stay on the wave. He went with the latter. Here are the numbers: he won the five-pointer by 2.6s; he won Sunday by 10.3s from Evans and the end of rally final classification by 16.1s.

Suddenly the engine issues of Thursday night, the gearbox dilemma on Friday, they both seemed a very long way away. This was a masterful performance from Neuville.

“This was a great team effort this week,” said Neuville. “The information was good, everybody was working perfectly together. For the car, it was handling really nice, we got quickly the set-up it needs. We had a little issue on the car on Thursday night, but from there it went all upwards and then it went actually really well since yesterday morning.”

Neuville was a man in command on Sunday. DirtFish offered that this was one of his best.

“There have been many good performances. I don’t know if you can say there has been one better than the others, but for sure it was a great team effort this week.”

Neuville was quick to pay tribute to the man he’d edged to overall victory.

“We’ve had some great battles,” he said. “In 2019 we lost to him by less than two seconds, in 2020 we won [from Ogier] by less than two seconds. This year we were just able to go faster and make the gap.”

Coming into Monte week, however, the talk had all been about number 10. Could the Monte master do it? What nobody could have factored in was the news he received about his uncle falling ill on the eve of the event. Immediately when he finished the recce on Monday, Ogier revealed he’d gone directly to the hospital. He arrived too late to say goodbye to a family member pivotal to his career in motorsport.


Staying focused after Monday was a tough ask for Ogier – but ever the professional, he found a way

Ogier kept everything to himself and got on with his job. Only after the fifth stage did feelings get the better of him, when he emotionally admitted to his tough week.

There’s no driver more professional than Ogier and when Sunday morning opened, his focus was fully on the fight. This time, however, it was beyond him.

With eight world titles and nine Monte wins under him, Ogier’s in a different place in his career. Emerging from the day’s second stage, when he’d seen more time slip the way of his rival, the writing looked to be on the wall.

Ogier’s a fighter, an absolute scrapper, but these days he gets to pick his battles and this one was just out of his reach.

“Yes, 10 is a nice number,” he told WRC stage end reporter Julian Porter at the end of the penultimate test. “But I have nine and that’s more than anybody else.”

Harborside before the finish, he added more analysis for DirtFish: “He (Neuville) had very strong speed most of the rally. At the end, the gaps were small, but often went in the wrong direction for us. Yesterday morning, this single stage where we dropped around 18s, of course if you think about that one its costly but…that’s the way it is in Monte Carlo. It’s risk management, and at some point he took a lot of risks, and he managed them well. So nothing to say.

“I’m happy that I managed to stay professional and still give a strong performance this weekend, but the one from Thierry was even stronger.”

Enough said.

Evans was happy to report progress through Sunday. It wasn’t the winning finale he might have hoped for, but early points are vital when building a title tilt. He knows that.

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After the darkness of Saturday, Evans found the light again on Sunday

“The feeling was somehow better today,” he said. “I don’t know whether I was just driving badly or what, but I didn’t enjoy the same level of confidence in the car yesterday afternoon in the conditions we had compared to the rest of the weekend. Even if it wasn’t perfect, it was a better feeling for me.

“It’s always nice to start [the season] with a solid haul of points, if we can. You know how this game goes, it can all go off-plan very quickly so just carry on doing the best we can and see what happens.”

There was a very similar level of pragmatism from Ott Tänak in fourth place. Four years ago the Estonian opened his Hyundai account with a trip to hospital after one of the biggest crashes of his career. This time was very different.

“The performance from the car is definitely there,” he said. “It’s actually quite easy to drive and I would say, for the first rally, not too bad from my point of view.

“Definitely the first part of the rally was a bit of a struggle and not many things went right. Altogether yesterday was a bit better and today as well. I screwed it up myself on the first days. We basically lost any chances to compete with someone and after that, we had to finish.”

Fourmaux and Mikkelsen rounded out the top six, delivering on their own need for a finish. Elsewhere, Citroën’s Yohan Rossel rocketed through Sunday to land an outstanding WRC2 win, having struggled, early doors, to match the pace of Pepe Lopez’s Škoda.

So, that’s 2024 up and running. And what an absolute banger to get us going. Forget the points structure and a winter of discontented chatter. Last weekend rallying demonstrated, once again, why it’s the very best sport in the world.

And Neuville and Wydaeghe were the best of the best.