Thierry Neuville wasn’t pulling any punches last Friday on Rally Portugal.
After a driveshaft broke on his way to the penultimate test, he was livid to have lost his grip on a likely podium courtesy of a problem that was outwith his control.
He then delivered this message after the Lousada superspecial: “We could have been within the fight for the lead now; unfortunately we got hit again by technical issues.
“It’s just frustrating, I mean I cannot do more than what we do. We are always missing the points at the end of the year, mainly due to small technical issues which in the end cost us probably always the title.
“I can’t do more than this, to be honest; it’s frustrating.”
Is he right? Have technical problems really been the reason Neuville has famously finished as the World Rally Championship bridesmaid five times but never lifted the title?
With the help of the fantastic eWRC-results database, let’s take a closer look at the last five seasons where Neuville has been an out-and-out title contender:
Championship position: 3rd
Points deficit: 54
There is a strong argument to suggest that mechanical failures were a key reason Neuville lost out in 2021, although whether he’d have actually been able to topple Sébastien Ogier in a Toyota is another matter.
A suspension breakage on the final day of Safari Rally Kenya was a huge moment, as it cost Neuville a certain victory and handed Ogier the chance to steal the win, widening the gap between the pair extensively. And then there was the stalling issue that probably cost him the win in Croatia.
Neuville’s other non-scores were in Portugal where he made an error on his own, but a radiator failure did force him out of Rally Finland while running sixth.
There was also a power-steering problem on the first day of the Acropolis that restricted him to just eighth place.
Conclusion: Given nobody scored more podiums than Neuville over the course of the season and neither Ogier nor Elfyn Evans suffered any mechanical DNFs, Neuville was let down by his equipment in 2021.
Championship position: 4th
Points deficit: 35
The disjointed nature of the 2020 season, owing to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the world, makes it a harder season to read as just seven rounds ran.
But again, Neuville has a justifiable case in his claim here too. He ground to a halt with a suspected engine issue in México, surrendering third place, then retired with an electrical issue in Estonia. That said, he had already ruined his own rally in the latter, when he ran off-line and broke a wheel.
His other missed opportunity in Turkey wasn’t of his own doing, nor was it his team’s; the blame for a puncture can’t be left with Hyundai’s technical department.
Conclusion: Deserved more, particularly after that stunning Monte win, but ultimately circumstances outwith his control meant his title shot was distant at best.
Championship position: 2nd
Points deficit: 36
The year Neuville finally got the better of Ogier, it was when Ogier was only third and he was beaten to the ultimate prize by Ott Tänak.
Neuville drove well, particularly in Corsica and Argentina where he grabbed back-to-back wins (albeit somewhat fortuitously in Corsica because of Evans’ powerstage puncture) but, generally speaking, his i20 Coupe WRC ran well.
The biggest damage to Neuville’s title challenge was done on Rally Chile where he spectacularly crashed out of third place in a frightening accident. There were other mistakes on the Monte too – overshooting a junction on Friday ultimately cost him the win to Ogier – and he rolled in Turkey, limiting himself to just an eighth place finish.
Neuville was a factor in the race throughout, but victory on Rally Spain wasn’t enough to deny Tänak the title a round early on what eventually became the final round anyway due to the cancelation of Rally Australia.
Conclusion: Tänak and the Yaris WRC were a formidable confirmation and therefore hard to overcome, but Neuville – not the car – cost himself the title.
Championship position: 2nd
Points deficit: 18
In what was a thrilling three-way tussle for the championship, eventual champion Ogier, Neuville and Tänak could barely be split all year.
Neuville enjoyed a purple patch mid-season (after a win in Sweden) with success in Portugal and a huge final stage win over Ogier in Sardinia, but it all began to slip away from him thereafter.
He struggled with the car in Finland (a theme over this period) and retired with a suspension problem in Turkey. Neuville also faltered on the Monte, running off the road on the very first evening of the season, and drifted off and had to settle for fifth on Rally GB as well.
He had a shot in the Australian finale but the odds favored Ogier, so ultimately a crash and a lost wheel were just signs of pushing too hard in the face of adversity.
Conclusion: A narrow season where any weakness was punished, but aside from the suspension in Turkey the mistakes were all of Neuville’s doing.
Championship position: 2nd
Points deficit: 24
If 2017 had repeated itself in 2022, Neuville would surely have been world champion. But as it was, with his lesser experience, a title he and Hyundai should’ve won was gallingly dropped and passed over to Ogier and M-Sport who didn’t need asking twice.
Neuville had the pace to win both of the opening two rounds. Instead, he walked away from both with minimal points due to running wide and damaging his suspension on the Monte, then embarrassingly clipping a bollard on a superspecial in Sweden.
He finally won in Corsica and doubled up in Argentina in a final stage showdown with Evans and remained on the podium for the next three rounds – including a victory in Poland against a charging Tänak.
Germany would prove to be the turning point as Neuville’s rear-left wheel completely failed over a cut in Panzerplatte, and then in Spain he lost hydraulic pressure before retiring with broken steering – as did both of his team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo.
Second in GB wasn’t enough to repel Ogier and a forgotten end-of-season win in Australia was great for the CV but absolutely meaningless in terms of the championship.
Conclusion: Neuville didn’t help himself, but nor did the car in crucial moments. Driver and car were the fastest package across the season but lacked the refinement to get the job done
Neuville certainly raises a valid point, suggesting that technical problems have cost him valuable championship points. But whether they’ve ultimately cost him the title itself is perhaps a stretch too far – at least in the earlier years where he made plenty mistakes of his own.
Last season was perhaps Neuville’s most compelling case in terms of his car restricting him, but a slightly brittle Hyundai is no brand-new concept.
This year Neuville’s been driving exceptionally, as proved by his clear second place in the championship after four rounds. But he’s currently unable to put up any sort of credible challenge to Kalle Rovanperä because, as good as Rovanperä has also been, his Toyota is simply faster and more reliable than Neuville’s Hyundai.
Hyundai’s most prized assets are its drivers. It cannot afford to lose them. But who could blame Neuville if he decided enough was enough and started exploring his future options?
He’s been with this team since 2014 and bet on it once again to bring him success in the Rally1 hybrid era. No matter how you rate Neuville compared to his peers, we can all agree that he deserves a car capable of challenging for the world title.
And right now, that’s exactly what he doesn’t appear to have.