The statement from new Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul is clear: Thierry Neuville is the team’s best chance at claiming the drivers’ World Rally Championship title.
The decision to swap Neuville and Craig Breen around on Rally Sweden (which ultimately didn’t work out as intended) certainly suggested as much.
But the words Abiteboul chose when asked about the team order ahead of the powerstage hammered the point home.
“I don’t like to call it a team order because it’s a situation we’ve been discussing all together, including with Craig, and I think we are doing the right thing clearly from a team perspective,” he said.
“Craig has shown what he is capable of doing, he has been remarkable all the weekend and he deserves to be where he is.
“He deserves first and foremost to be with our team which is fighting for a championship which is a drivers’ championship.
“We have a clear stance and clear strategy in that regard.”
That ‘clear stance and clear strategy’ being: Neuville is our man.
But is this a short-sighted strategy from Hyundai? Has it written off its other full-time driver too quickly?
A glance at the current drivers’ championship would suggest not. While Neuville is currently third on 32 points, Esapekka Lappi is seventh with just 15 points to his name.
But statistics and numbers never tell the full story.
Seventh place in Sweden is a far from accurate depiction of Lappi’s performance, which was more than good enough for third place before the unfortunate tire delamination that spat him into a snowbank and cost him several minutes.
For many, the decision to swap Breen and Neuville around made sense given Neuville’s storming penultimate stage time created an opportunity to do just that without sacrificing position to Kalle Rovanperä’s Toyota. And by this point, Ott Tänak’s lead was healthy enough to make toppling him fairly improbable for Breen.
Given Breen is only doing half a season, drivers’ points are basically irrelevant for him – but they are absolutely relevant for Neuville.
However, the explanation Abiteboul gave suggests that Lappi may not have been afforded the same treatment had he been in Neuville’s position.
Off the back of last week’s SPIN, The Rally Pod, we launched a poll on Twitter to ask if you were Abiteboul, would you have swapped positions around if it was Lappi, not Breen, in that second position.
The majority of you (63%) said no, but intriguingly that means 37% of you said yes.
But, on the whole, the commenters in the reply thread were in agreement.
“Esapekka already was a ‘supporting’ driver doing part-time [last year at Toyota]. He is not a support driver this year, but a full-time one,” one user wrote.
“He had great results last year and he has a shot at the championship.”
Another added: “100% not. It would kill Lappi’s motivation to push if on the second rally of the season he has been sent the message that, no matter what, he has no chance to win. And that would be bad for the manufacturers’ championship.”
And one person pointed out: “Tough decision because Neuville is their best chance to get a drivers’ championship, but overall, I don’t believe in doing too many team orders because rally is such an unpredictable sport, as shown by what happened when Breen and Neuville were swapped.”
However, one user did say: “With Lappi’s turtle speed in Monte and as a full seasoned driver, I would say yes already. I think he’s with Hyundai specifically for the fast gravel rallies where he will score better than Thierry.”
The consensus among most though appears to be that favoring Neuville is fine in principle but doing it this early in the season is bold to say the least.
“I think to be fair it was quite a brave call from Cyril, and I do have a lot of respect for him for that, because this was only the second ever rally he’s worked in his life which in itself is quite remarkable,” said Luke Barry on this week’s podcast.
“But he’s had the brass neck to do this, and he’s done what he thinks is right, and I honestly think it was the right thing to do [swapping Breen and Neuville around].
“If they’d said on Sunday morning before any stages had run: ‘Craig, you’re going to have to back off a bit and let Thierry close to within 10s, and then do it [switch positions]’ I would say: ‘well that’s a bit naive.’
“But I think the key was Craig losing three seconds to Ott on [the first stage of] Sunday morning, because that extended the lead to 11.6s and at that point Tänak’s in rally conservation mode – he can afford to control that from there.
“Thierry then obviously put that blistering time in on the second pass which closed him to within 10s, so it was almost as if it had been perfectly crafted. I’m not suggesting it was, I think that was essentially coincidental that they got this dream ticket.
“I’m just disappointed in myself that I didn’t see it coming, as lots of people did. But it does make sense.
“What would interest me is what would they have done if it was Esapekka ahead of Thierry – would they have switched them then? Cyril didn’t shy away from admitting that they already essentially see Thierry as the team’s drivers’ championship threat and going on past form that’s completely fair enough.
“But two rounds into a season to be that convinced already, it’s quite bold shall we say.”
David Evans was in agreement.
“To be backing a driver so obviously… it’s not like we are in the position of Sébastien Loeb and Dani Sordo 15 years ago at Citroën where Sordo knew, categorically, he was the de facto number two driver at the start of every year and Citroën would do everything they possibly could to make sure that Sébastien Loeb won another championship,” he said.
“It’s not that same scenario for me. Thierry Neuville is a great, great rally driver, but he’s not already a three, four, five-time world champion.
“He’s won more WRC rounds than Esapekka Lappi but who’s to say that Lappi doesn’t 100% click with that car and halfway through the year he’s had four or five podiums, a win, and he’s actually ahead of Thierry in the championship.
“You just don’t know, do you?”
However, Evans did admit he “can see both sides” of the debate.
He added: “There’s no doubt that Thierry has strong, strong support within that team and he’s consistently denied the fact that it’s his team, but we know that it kind of is.
“He’s been there from the start from 2014, he’s been there forever, and he’s the guy you’d have to say, apart from that time with Hayden Paddon, that’s brought them success.
“Lappi’s a driver who has great potential, but you could equally argue that Lappi’s not absolutely at the top of his game, he’s coming off the back of a part program with Toyota and before that, aside from two amazing WRC2 results in Portugal and Finland, was a middling year with M-Sport.
“Maybe Hyundai are being pragmatic and looking at it from a more performance-driven perspective. But they have set a precedent – where does this stop if it is all guns blazing for Thierry?”
The upcoming rounds of the championship should give us more of an answer of just how tactical Hyundai is prepared to get.
“I think what we all need to hope will manifest is going into the powerstage of México, Esapekka Lappi has like a five-second lead over Thierry,” Barry said.
“Then we’ll see what happens!”