Ypres Rally leader Thierry Neuville thinks converting Hyundai’s current stranglehold on the leading positions into a 1-2 at the finish would be an “unexpected result for the team”.
A Hyundai driver has been in the lead for at least two stages of every World Rally Championship event this year, often from the start of the rally, but that has only been converted to victory once from seven attempts, by Ott Tänak on February’s Arctic Rally Finland.
Going into the final day of the Ypres Rally there is a 32.3-second gap between Hyundai’s Craig Breen in second place and Toyota’s Elfyn Evans in third. It’s a gap that could have been larger had team orders not been issued at Hyundai telling its two drivers to focus on finishing rather than their victory fight.
“The manufacturers’ points is going to be really important for us, and it’s going to be a strong result if we can bring home the two cars in 1-2,” said Neuville, when asked if he was concerned about how close Breen was to him during Saturday’s stages.
“I think that would be an unexpected result for the team and a good move, so that’s why we need to be focused on keeping the car on the road.”
To execute that, Neuville stuck to a “steady, good rhythm” on roads he has rallied on as far back as a decade ago, and with a growing gap over the Toyota drivers he expected “a little bit more freedom for the afternoon loop”. That proved to be the case, as he brought his rally lead up to 10 seconds over Breen.
If Breen finishes second behind Neuville it would mark Hyundai’s first WRC 1-2 finish since last October’s Rally Italy, and would be the third time in five rallies that he has matched his career-best result.
“We had a really nice feeling in the car on the first couple of stages,” he said, after cutting into Neuville’s lead during the day. “I really enjoyed it and made some small changes during the night.
“And what can I say? It feels really good, I feel I can do good things, but we have to try to protect the position.”
There was a tinge of regret in Breen’s voice as he spoke, but he had been issued “recommendations” by team principal Andrea Adamo earlier that day not to blow a result that has been on the cards for Hyundai several times this year but come to nothing.
“Obviously it’s important for the manufacturers’ championship that we have two cars at the end. A 1-2 is even better again, it’s a great boost for the championship, but…” Breen sighed. “I feel really good in the car and it’s a little bit hard.”
At the end of Saturday, he explained to DirtFish why scaling it back to secure Hyundai’s 1-2 was harder than it would seem.
“I’m happy that I managed to find a rhythm that I can drive it just sort of 92%, 93%,” he said.
“I’ve struggled in the past to try and manage the correct pace – I can drive on the [ultimate] pace, and then to just bring it back that 1.2 seconds per kilometer is super-tricky sometimes, but today, this afternoon especially, we’ve managed that.”