Loriaux on life at the top of the table

Hyundai's WRC program manager has experienced highs and lows in his time at the Alzenau-based squad


The eyes narrowed behind the square, thickset glasses. Nothing’s changed. Christian Loriaux wasn’t biting. Regardless which shade of blue the shirt, the Belgian has always played his cards close to his chest.

Tuesday’s news of the continuity of Rally1 regulations would appear to have more ramifications for Loriaux’s Hyundai team than any other. Before Rally2+ and hybrid-less Rally1 was a thing, the Korean manufacturer was planning a ground-up rebuild of the current i20. That was this year’s job. The budget was set aside, the planning complete. Understandably, when question marks were set against the technical rules for next season, the plug was pulled.

A waiver on homologation rules for next season means teams can use two years’ worth of jokers in one go. Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul says the Frankfurt-based team can still do around 50% of the work intended for next season.

So, with 2025 and 2026 set, what’s going to change on the i20 N Rally1?


How different will next year's evolution of the i20 N look from the winner of three events so far this year?

The eyes narrowed behind the square, thickset glasses.

“You know,” he said, “I think I’ve been giving you that that answer for maybe 20 or 30 years – but it’s the same today: if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

There’s the trademark giggle and a disarming smile.

“I don’t want to kill you.

“We’re working hard. For sure, we would have liked to do a new car – mainly because this car we had to do in quite a rush. Really, we’re looking at trying to do [an] evolution for next year.”


We hope that's Christian's happy grin and not his murderous one

With Hyundai running one-two (admittedly with Ott Tänak joint second with Elfyn Evans on points) in the drivers’ championship and the team easing clear of Toyota at the front of the makes’ race, there’s the obvious question of how much of an evolution is needed.

Typically, Loriaux is cautious on any predictions. He’s been around this sport for long enough to see triumph turn to disaster – and vice-versa – in the blink of an eye.

“Hyundai,” he said, “and Ott and Thierry [Neuville] are in a strong position at the moment, but we still only have done six rallies out of 13. There’s still seven rallies to go. If you have one rally where you have a crash on a Saturday, where you damage the roll cage, you cannot come back on a Sunday, you do a zero point. Straightaway you could drop very far away, so nothing is over. Not by a long, long way.”

Watching Loriaux flying through the air headfirst and harbor-bound while still trying to take his shirt off, it’s easy to see how settled he is at Hyundai. He’s as much part of the team in Alzenau as he ever was in Banbury with Prodrive and Cockermouth with M-Sport.

And nothing will ever dim the enthusiasm and the energy. Anybody doubting Loriaux’s ability should be reminded of a CV that includes arguably Subaru’s best Impreza (the P2000 which became known as WRC2000) and Ford’s best Focus (the WRC03). Both were game-changing World Rally Cars.

Rally di Sanremo San Remo (ITA) 20-22 10 2000

2000 Subaru Impreza is among Loriaux's fine back catalog

After a spell of making fast Bentleys faster, Loriaux was happy to be back between the trees following something of a shock announcement of his shift from M-Sport to Hyundai in 2021.

It’s fair to say the ’21 season wasn’t Hyundai’s best. Having taken back-to-back titles in 2019/20, the odds were stacked against a hat-trick. Then-team principal Andrea Adamo was battling to keep the Koreans in the championship, and struggling for sign-off on an all-new hybrid 2022-specification i20 that was late and getting later.

And then Monte Carlo and the birth of that hybrid era happened. Hyundai was stunned with how far behind everything was. One car out of three made the finish – with deputy team director Julian Moncet admitting they were fortunate to get all three to the start. There were flashes of pace, but the reliability was the thing that was hurting them the most.

It’s easy to write that season off. Loriaux’s not so quick.

“I think we were very strong in 2022,” he said. And this isn’t him being contentious for the sake of contention.

He added: “The first rally, on gravel, which really was in snow in Sweden? Ott was well up there to win it, and he had a problem with the hybrid system. We won Sardina in 2022. Then we had Hyundai’s first ever 1-2-3 in Greece that year. So ’22 was a strong year.”


Acropolis 1-2-3 was a highlight of 2022

There’s no arguing with those stats, but anybody thinking Loriaux has painted his specs with a rose tint, should talk more about the year that followed.

Talking quietly, he adds: “Yeah, 2023 was a very dark year for us. And sometimes it’s like that. Some years, you are bad.”

Former Formula 1 team principal Abiteboul joined the team at the start of that season – and was joined by Francois-Xavier Demaison, a rival to Loriaux for the mantle of most decorated World Rally Car designer.

From having no obvious team principal in 2022 (Moncet was never given the actual title he deserved), Hyundai looked management-heavy a year down the line. How would the Loriaux-Demaison-Abiteboul axis work?

“It’s clear,” Christian said, “that the team is getting stronger. The fact that Cyril join us, that F-X join us, we have more stability. We have more people to manage the team. Things have changed.


Loriaux, Demaison and Abiteboul are a formidable management triumvirate

“And, as well, the team get more used to the car, so we do everything better and we’re more prepared. It is very true that we’ve developed the car over the winter further, and we saw already in Monte Carlo [this year] that we had a bit more edge in pace on certain rallies. And in places like Sardinia, we’ve always been strong.”

What about the immediate future? It seems fashionable to dismiss Hyundai’s chances of success on gravel anywhere north of the team’s German base. Despite basing its permanent test site out of Finland, there’s only been one i20 win in more than a decade of starts in Jyväskylä – and that came with a very special Tänak performance in 2022.

Loriaux: “Last year in Finland, Thierry finished second. The coming [fast gravel] rallies are the more difficult for us, but, as I said, Thierry was second and Ott won Finland the year before. I think the car’s always been up there and clearly this year we’re stronger than before.”

So, what’s coming in Poland later this month?

The eyes narrowed behind the square, thickset glasses.

“If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Nothing’s changed. Except some things…