The cat is out the bag! After weeks of speculation, the identity of Hyundai’s 2023 World Rally Championship drivers has now been made clear.
Thierry Neuville will be joined by Esapekka Lappi in driving an i20 N Rally1 for a full campaign, while Craig Breen returns to the team he left 12 months ago to share the third seat with Hyundai long-termer Dani Sordo.
With just two months until next year’s season-opener, the Monte Carlo Rally, Hyundai’s new recruits don’t have long to settle into their new environment, but the bigger question is has Hyundai created the best lineup it could? Is this a team capable of beating Toyota to next year’s title?
We put that question to our writers, and here’s their immediate reaction to Hyundai’s selection:
A great chance for Neuville
Is this a WRC-winning line-up?
Can I tweak the question, just slightly? Isn’t it more pertinent to ask whether 2023 could be Thierry Neuville’s year?
Let’s go with that. And, yes. Next year could – finally – be the year when the amiable, bespectacled Belgian lands rallying’s biggest prize. The second half of this season has demonstrated that Hyundai’s i20 N Rally1 isn’t just heading in the right direction, it’s leading the charge headlong in a title-winning direction.
OK, the car is still prone to the odd issue (that said, almost all the hybrid issues fell into Ott Tänak’s lap, so maybe these will disappear along with the Estonian) but the speed is undoubtedly there on gravel.
An hour or so after he’d won Rally Japan, I asked Neuville if Tänak’s departure and the arrival of Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen would offer him the chance to bring the boys and girls of Alzenau universally into his corner again.
He got mildly shirty and denied he’d ever taken the team in his own direction. It wasn’t a criticism. It was actually a compliment – any driver who shows the strength to genuinely lead a team is worth having.
Shorn of the distraction of Tänak and with what we can assume will be more compliant team-mates, Neuville’s sitting in the box seat going into what will be his 10th straight season with Hyundai.
So, yes, a drivers’ title is a good possibility.
Manufacturers’ championship? Why not? Lappi spent last season understanding the importance of the team game and will be entirely au fait with doing what’s needed to bring the points home.
There will be occasions when Lappi and Breen can and should outscore Neuville, but the key for them and Dani Sordo is to play the support act. Do that as well as we know they can and, yes, this is a world class outfit.
This is the best it could’ve done
All things considered, Hyundai has done a good job. Not a great job; a great job would’ve been keeping hold of prized asset Tänak, but in the circumstances this looks like the best lineup of drivers it could possibly have formed.
In Neuville it has a clear leader, and what perhaps 2022 showed is he’s at his most comfortable being the alpha of the team rather than having a strong internal challenger like Tänak. Lappi will be a compliant team-mate, yet quick enough to challenge at the front – especially on the fast gravel rallies that are a real Neuville weak spot.
Andreas Mikkelsen can feel hard done by. We understand he was perilously close to a deal before Lappi suddenly entered the frame, but from a team’s perspective choosing between Lappi and Mikkelsen is a real toss-up. Mikkelsen may be the marginally more dependable of the two, but Lappi potentially has the bigger pay off in terms of peak performance.
The question I have is whether Lappi has made a mistake. There’s obvious allure in jumping ship given it nets him a full program of rallies, but Toyota is Lappi’s home. Moving away didn’t serve him too well four years ago when he fled to Citroën, so I really hope for his sake that he doesn’t come to regret this decision.
As for the shared third drive, from a fan’s perspective it’s impossible not to feel a little gutted that Kris Meeke never got the nod. Meeke would’ve been tremendously exciting on a part season, free to just go and chase rally wins.
But I am equally glad that Breen has engineered a way out of M-Sport. Something just wasn’t working for him over there, but Breen now has some big questions to answer. Back in the environment where he prospered to earn what we all thought was a dream move, if this doesn’t work out then his career could well be over.
And Sordo? It goes without saying what he’ll bring: points. All elements therefore appear to be in place. A ferociously determined team leader and an uber-capable understudy paired with either the most consistent WRC driver going or a wounded driver with a massive point to prove.
If Hyundai doesn’t win in 2023, it won’t be because it got its driver lineup wrong.
Hyundai will miss Tänak
I’m not entirely sure that Hyundai’s 2023 lineup can be considered an improvement.
It had a rally-winning lineup in 2022, it was just that its car wasn’t competitive enough at the start of the season.
That being said, it’s not as though this is a weak lineup, and this year Lappi has done more than enough at Toyota to show that he is fully deserving of a full-time drive in 2023.
And for Breen, well he will join the team as a complete unknown now. There’s no denying he has great speed, but he threw great results away all too often in the Puma this year. He needs to reset and get himself straight, and at the moment nobody knows whether that will be possible before next season gets underway.
I fully expect Hyundai to be competitive next season and that Neuville will remain the clear team leader.
But for me, the level of talent doesn’t quite match what Hyundai had with Neuville and Tänak side by side, and that could come back to hurt it as the season develops.