After a false start last week, Hyundai has now got its World Rally Championship testing regime properly underway with Thierry Neuville at the wheel. WRC testing had been banned since March as COVID-19 swept through Europe, locking down much of the continent and with it top-spec Rally1 machines.
Hyundai was supposed to be first out of the gate after the FIA listed those testing restrictions at the end of last month. And it was, briefly, as the team headed to Finland a week before locally-based rivals Toyota emerged from its Puuppola base. But then things went awry.
DirtFish had exclusive access to Hyundai’s activities over the past fortnight. Here’s the full story.
Radio silence is a very good thing at a test. But when the woods go quiet and the radio gets noisy, that’s bad. Walking towards the start of a stage in central Finland a week last Monday, Hyundai Motorsport director Andrea Adamo saw a marshal grab his radio and clamp it to his ear.
Seconds later, rescue vehicles are mobilised and heading into the stage. That message had two words.
Adamo turned on his heel and walked back to the service park where the test is based. First things first, Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul are both fine. Out of the car, walking about, completely unharmed. Typically for a driver, Neuville is immediately searching for answers. How did this happen?
Neuville talks DirtFish through the moment his world turned upside down.
“We took off a wheel in a cut,” he explains. “[There was] a big hidden stone, which we discovered by the end of the day by cutting more and more every time. It sent us into a ditch and we rolled the car several times unfortunately.”
Adamo watched on as the car was recovered.
He says: “When I saw that organizer on the radio, he was a bit agitated and he then he rushed to Thierry. I said to myself: ‘F*****g hell! That’s not good’. This is not the way the radio guy is normally behaving when everything is fine. I have bad memories in my life and when I hear somebody shouting on the radio, it reminds me of those bad memories.”
The thick end of three months have passed since a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC was in full flight at Rally México. A four-day test in Finland was a way to wake the team up and remind them what the World Rally Championship is all about.
No, there’s no Rally Finland, but this remained an excellent opportunity for Hyundai to try to narrow the gap to Toyota in Tommi Mäkinen’s backyard. Just short of a day in and now this. The car’s scrap.
Adamo: “When I saw the car destroyed, I was thinking about all the hard work we did to prepare the car to organize the traveling in Finland, all the documents we had to prepare, all the meetings I had to have. Then I say: ‘F*****g hell!’
“But after 22 seconds of bad mood I kick myself in the ass and say this is the situation, let’s deal with it. I call my guys and say: ‘Tomorrow we fly home and we get the next car ready.’
“We go back to the factory and they start work on the second test car straight away. And it was a lot of work, the guys for sure put a lot of effort and time into this.
“Of course, I have to think to the Euros that I’m spending, but we have to invest something because it’s priceless to do the test and to see the people working again – it’s good even for their mood.”
The broken car was loaded into a trailer, hooked up to a van and sent south to where it came from: Frankfurt. The rest of the team loaded the kit into the trucks, then parked them. They’d be back.
“I never say things have to be easy in my life,” says Adamo. “We take the plane home and we start again. As soon as I knew it was a crash, I knew we had to repair the car. In life, you have to send signals, signals are stronger than words and I want people to understand what this team is about. This team is made strong, strong like stone.”
Could the car have been repaired? Would they have repaired it if it had been a rally?
“We could’ve repaired the car,” says Adamo, “but I think Jerome [Toquet, FIA technical director] might not have been happy. I’m not the person who gives up, but I think Jerome would have made me give up with this car…
“And anyway, when you come to test, you want the car to be right – it’s no point to test with a bent car. So, we go home and immediately prepare to come back.”
The team was back in the factory at Alzenau on Wednesday morning, the following day the second test car was ready to be loaded up and sent north. On Friday morning that return journey began, with the car arriving back into Finland on Sunday lunchtime. Simultaneously, team personnel were touching down in Helsinki and driving north in a Jämsä direction to pick up the trucks and set up a new service area through Monday.
Eight days after he got into the i20 WRC test car the first time around, Neuville was back and smiling again.
“It’s my birthday,” he grins. “And what a way to spend your birthday… The sun’s out and we have a very nice and fast car and one of the best roads in the world.”
And this time everything went to plan. Neuville spent much of his 32nd birthday airborne with one of the world’s fastest ever rally cars bouncing off the rev limiter.
Adamo’s smiling. The team’s making real progress now. A bunch of meetings have kept the Italian in the office this week, but he’s getting regular updates from central Finland. And he’s happy with what he’s hearing.
DirtFish is banned from poking its nose into the tent and under the bonnet of the test car, but a close inspection of the i20 reveals aero tweaks front and rear.
Adamo’s not giving anything away.
“New aero?” he says in mock surprise, “Really? Maybe it’s something they found up there, I don’t know…
“Remember the test was close to Rovaniemi. Maybe it was a Christmas present that was forgotten by Santa Claus. Or maybe it’s something that came off his sleigh and maybe we have to give it back to Santa Claus now…
“Don’t misunderstand me, we tested everything. We said before that in these roads, we have seen in the past that our car isn’t where it has to be compared with our competition. We tested many things.”
Wednesday and Thursday belong to Neuville’s team-mate Ott Tänak. The Estonian’s happy with his first significant mileage on fast gravel. He calls Adamo and tells him so.
“This is why I am happy and why everybody is happy. Thierry and Ott work so well together, it means we can split the jobs between them and get more [work] done.
“Ott is good to have because he is a guy who has a good knowledge of what he wants and how to reach it and, in the end, is in a similar way to Thierry. We have seen their direction is very similar. With one and the other you don’t have to start from scratch every time you can have a common direction.
“They trust each other what has been tested and they share many things. Ott has tested and driven different WRC cars so he knows what he wants.
“Another good thing from the test was the opportunity to test many different types of road. It wasn’t always typical Finland-style. The organizers in Finland were very good at finding us what we needed: sometimes twisty, sometimes fast, big ruts, not fast and then some places where the road was a bit broken. The drivers and the engineers are very happy with this.”
And Tänak was especially impressed with Thursday. Ouninpohja day.
“It’s quite a fancy piece of road, eh,” he grins. “Actually, I didn’t drive this road too many times, maybe only once or twice. It’s a nice experience and, for sure, very demanding for the car. It’s a nice place to do some development, but in the test you are never pushing the limit it’s more about testing.
“Luckily I have done some days in an R5 car, so let’s say I’m a bit used [to the speed], but it’s been a long break and to get used to the notes and find a rhythm, you need to focus a bit.”
For the last two seasons, Tänak’s been in the box seat when Rally Finland’s come to town. And for the last two seasons he made the most of the Toyota Yaris WRC – a car crafted on these roads – and took back-to-back wins in Jyväskylä. Knowing how good the Yaris was, he can tell us how much work has to be done with the i20.
We pose the question. Cue one of those looks from Ott that speaks volumes without saying anything. And this time the silence is saying: “Do you seriously expect me to answer that?”
He smiles. He’s seen us coming.
“Every car,” he offers, “has its own personality. We are working on this car now to make sure it beats the other one.”
Classic Tänak. There’s a wink from his PR man Henri Rump. One-nil. He’s taught him well.
“We know,” continues Tänak, “it’s always been quite a low part for the team to be fast in the fast roads and we try to improve this on the specific roads and roads with this characteristic. And, when we improve, we can take it to the other roads as well.
“Let’s see what’s possible. It’s early in testing and it’s been a long break.”
Other roads of similar character like, say, Estonia?
“Hopefully,” he says quietly.
Watching Tänak sailing head-height through the Finnish sunshine, it’s easy to forget just how short he is on Hyundai seat time. Monte Carlo, well, he definitely had a hand in that lack of mileage… Sweden was shortened by winter’s no-show and México ran to two days while the coronavirus strengthened its grip of the world.
Tanak says: “There is always a lot to do and this year especially – it’s been very limited. I’ve not actually done a proper rally this year, everything I’ve done has been cut short that’s how it is. But, OK, now I have some things to do.”
It’s the same story for everybody in the team. Hyundai heads south – for the second time in a fortnight – with the job done. A test car might have been sacrificed, but in bending that i20, Adamo and his team has demonstrated the resolve required to reach and remain at the very top of the World Rally Championship.