Midway through Mäeküla, Saturday morning in Estonia. July. Give or take, the season’s midpoint. First half, Toyota. Second half, very, very much Hyundai.
Hats off to Julien Moncet, to Pablo Marcos, to Christian Loriaux and, of course, to the crews who steered the trio of rejuvenated i20 N Rally1s. Last week’s Rally Japan was the crowning glory. A 1-2 in Toyota City.
That’ll do for the South Korean crowd.
Before we get into what went on in and around the prefectures of Aichi and Gifu on the 13th and final round of the 2022 World Rally Championship, it’s worth putting the numbers on Hyundai’s second half success.
The Alzenau-based team smashed it. Had the title been decided from that Estonian Saturday morning forwards, it would have been a blue and orange whitewash.
Hyundai outscored Toyota by four and a half points, and not only would Kalle Rovanperä have missed out on his first title, he would have come in third behind both Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville.
Arguably, this has been Hyundai’s most successful season in the WRC ever. Never before has it won five rallies. What that team has done since Monte Carlo in January is quite astonishing. Nothing, in fact, short of brilliant.
Now, imagine what could have been achieved without the bickering and back-biting which has been the backdrop to the 2022 season.
And that backdrop remained firmly in place through Japan. Even as Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe were climbing on top of the car to celebrate their second success of the season, colleagues were considering their own futures.
The atmosphere around Hyundai was odd, awkward at times. Who knew what?
Who knew whether Moncet would be staying on as team principal? Or was he bound for a return to the engine department?
And what about Éric Boullier? That done deal looks to have come undone in favor of fellow F1-er Davide Brivio.
The point is, a magnificent 1-2 in Toyota City was in danger of being overlooked by internal wrangling and on-going fighting.
Let’s not overlook it. Instead, let’s look it over.
And let’s appreciate Neuville at his very best.
If one moment encapsulates Thierry’s mood, it was coming out of the first stage on Sunday morning. He’d watched all but six-tenths of a four-second lead disappear in Elfyn Evans’ direction. Was he bothered? Not a bit.
Looking over the car ahead of the next stage, he batted the question away with ease.
“When the rain comes,” he said, “we’re ready. We have the two wet tires. We will be quicker.”
And he was confident it would come.
“This is the information from the team.”
Both sentences delivered with absolute conviction, yet without a hint of arrogance. I love Neuville’s self-belief and confidence. People who know about the weather had told him it would rain, that was good enough for him.
It would rain and he had wet tires in the boot. That’s why he would win.
Evans had no wets in the boot. That’s why he would lose.
Had the fight continued to the final two stages, that’s precisely what would have happened. Evans’ combination of three softs and a hard Pirelli would have been no match for two wets and two softs aboard i20 #11.
That Evans blinked and punctured one of his Pirellis (running wide after he was told too late how slippery the corner in question was) was academic by his own admission. When the heaven’s opened, this rally was only going one way.
Across the spread of the event, Sébastien Ogier would rightly argue against such sentiment. Nobody scored more fastest times than the eight-time world champion, who also ‘won’ Saturday and Sunday. He dropped 2m43 seconds with a second-stage puncture and finished the event 2m23s behind Neuville.
Ahead of the event, Ogier and Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala joked nervously about the time when they failed to win Rally Germany for Volkswagen. Much as Latvala talked earnestly about Takamoto Katsuta’s superb third place (and it was superb) and season-long objectives being fulfilled, that whole Polo-Trier scenario came back to haunt Toyota in, quite literally, its own backyard.
And Neuville was the man who made that nightmare come true. Chapeau.
And the same to second-placed Tänak, the second-half champion. Had it not been for hybrid and transmission issues, the Estonian would have been closer to his team-mate. And that could have made things more than interesting on Saturday night.
Let’s fly-on-the-wall this one.
Moncet: “So, Ott, the gap is close to Thierry. Let’s be sensible and hold the positions.”
We came to here to fight for more championships. It was not happening and I was never delivering enough to be actually in any of those championship fightsOtt Tänak
Moncet: “I think we both know a one-two over Toyota would mean a lot to Hyundai…”
Tänak: “Sayonara Julien.”
In more ways than one.
Fascinating as the Neuville-Evans Sunday morning was, the prospect of the departing Tänak scrapping with Hyundai long-timer Neuville would have made for classic drama.
Sadly it didn’t happen. But Tänak’s departure from Hyundai is happening.
Talking to Ott at the finish was slightly surreal. Asking him to reflect on three years aboard an i20 brought a wry smile.
“Obviously, it wasn’t successful,” came the reply. “We came to here to fight for more championships. It was not happening and I was never delivering enough to be actually in any of those championship fights.
“Other than that, it’s been definitely an incredible experience. I met another bunch of people and made probably some friends for life. So still it was worth it, yeah.”
That one of those friends for life was sitting in his apartment in Turin and not commanding the team he’d taken to two world titles is probably a significant influence over Tänak’s decision to depart.
He’ll always split opinion, but there’s little doubt Andrea Adamo was Hyundai’s great motivator, tactician and team principal.
Let’s not end on a negative. Instead, let’s tune in to Thierry one more time.
“I’m so happy for the team,” he said. “This was not an easy weekend. I said I wanted to try to beat Toyota on their own soil and to do that is really incredible. We showed great speed all of the weekend and we deserve this win.
“Now we have to carry on the work. Monte is only some weeks away…”
And so the story continues.