Strong Hyundai results being overshadowed by team orders is becoming something of a habit.
Remember Acropolis Rally Greece? When the i20 N Rally1 locked out the podium for the first time in Hyundai’s World Rally Championship history. All the chatter surrounded the order of the drivers, not the fact Hyundai had wiped the floor with its rivals.
The circumstances at play on this year’s Rally Sweden were different, but the effect was the same. What we’re talking about isn’t a Hyundai double podium but a team order decision that, this time, backfired.
Unlike in Greece five months ago Hyundai didn’t win – Craig Breen tried his best, but he didn’t quite have enough to topple Ott Tänak and his old employer M-Sport.
But Hyundai did make a change to the order in which its drivers finished. Or at least it tried to.
Ahead of the powerstage Breen had 8.5 seconds to make up on Tänak. Not impossible, but a tall order.
Thierry Neuville meanwhile had just taken a decisive step in his battle to claim third position. Starting the penultimate stage just 1.1s ahead of Kalle Rovanperä, Neuville was some six seconds faster to hold Rovanperä to a 7.1s deficit.
And that was absolutely key to what happened next.
Cyril Abiteboul hasn’t long been in the job of Hyundai team principal, but at just his second ever rally he certainly made his mark.
The call came. Breen was instructed to check into the final regroup one minute late and thus incur a 10s time penalty, dropping 0.5s behind Neuville but still 6.6s clear of Rovanperä.
All Breen had to do then was not beat Neuville on the powerstage and keep his time loss to Rovanperä to a minimum.
Breen did his job, dropping just two tenths to the Toyota, but unbeknown to him Neuville had had a scrappy stage – running wide at one junction and slamming sideways into a snowbank – and set a time that was 1.8s slower than Breen.
So Breen accidentally took the position that, on merit, had been his anyway. And given Neuville’s time loss, there was no longer a sufficient time gap for Breen to be dropped into to allow Hyundai to re-reverse the positions once more.
Talk about egg on the face.
But Abiteboul wasn’t embarrassed, he was smiling.
“It didn’t work, but I think we have done the right thing from the team perspective,” he said.
“When you have our strategy to fight for the drivers’ championship you want to give the driver the maximum opportunity and chances which is what we’ve done for Thierry.
“But the god of speed have decided otherwise, and I like also the god of speed!
“The result will stand and we have lots of smiles from everyone, including Thierry.”
Team orders in motorsport are always a topic of intense debate, but it’s hard to disagree with Abiteboul and Hyundai team management’s line of thinking – even if the initial instruction they gave ultimately proved pointless.
Breen isn’t a contender for this year’s drivers’ championship given he’s sitting out half the rounds, but Neuville very much is. So switching the two around made complete sense as it would boost Neuville’s personal championship bid but not jeopardise Hyundai’s in the manufacturers with two i20s still taking points for second and third.
Of course, it can – and already has – been argued that Breen didn’t deserve that after such a strong showing. But in truth, second or third would make no difference to a driver who was understandably proud to have come out the other side of the storm that was his 2022 season with a smile on his face.
As messy as it ended up, Hyundai made the right call. But intriguingly, Hyundai’s logic today is a staggering U-turn from the tactics it applied in September.
Back then it was Neuville who was leading with Tänak close behind in second. Tänak wanted to be let through to apply more pressure on championship leader Rovanperä – who was suffering a second nightmare weekend in a row – but he was told no (by Hyundai Motorsport president Sean Kim no less) as the team wanted to preserve the 1-2-3 finish.
Apply that strategy today, and Breen would not have been asked to drop behind Neuville.
All I could think about when we discovered that Breen had checked in late was why on earth Tänak wasn’t granted his wish and the same opportunity last year? It’s old ground, but well worth contemplating.
The situation was more or less the same. A Tänak win would’ve helped a Hyundai driver in the drivers’ championship (Neuville by this point was pretty much out of it) and wouldn’t have compromised its return for the manufacturers championship.
New management is of course in place with Julien Moncet back concentrating on the powertrain division full time, and Abiteboul now at the helm without the complication of the word ‘deputy’ in his job title.
That gives Abiteboul more freedom to make decisions, and Hyundai a different viewpoint when debating how to play things.
But Tänak always felt that Neuville was Hyundai’s favored son – so is it purely a new managerial direction at the heart of this strategical U-turn, or does perhaps comparing these two situations provide the clearest evidence yet of the authority Neuville has within the team?