Four weeks ago, Thierry Neuville was on the attack. His target? The Toyota of Elfyn Evans.
With Esapekka Lappi’s Hyundai suddenly out of the Rally México picture, Sébastien Ogier had reached for cruise control out front but the battle for the second spot on the podium was suddenly alive.
Neuville kept chipping away at his deficit to Evans, starting the final day on Sunday with just 4.3 seconds to make up. History favored the Belgian.
Over the years, Neuville’s become a bit of a master at gutsy comeback drives to snatch a result away from his rival right at the death. Somehow nearly always against Evans.
But he wasn’t feeling too confident last week, even when he was reminded that he has a habit of edging Evans on Sundays.
“Yeah but one rally isn’t the other,” he smiled.
“I feel like it’s hard for us this weekend to really make a gap, but yesterday we were able to take more or less eight seconds out of Elfyn.
“Yesterday was double the mileage and eight seconds, so today is half the mileage and four seconds.
“It will be tight.”
He wasn’t wrong, as in the end just 0.4s split the pair after over three hours of competitive driving.
But the sight of Neuville celebrating in front of the TV cameras was a familiar one. With Evans nursing a broken suspension arm his pace had dropped a touch, and the tenacious Neuville was able to do just enough to steal second right at the death.
Unfortunately for Evans, it was a case of history repeating itself as every single time he and Neuville have started the final day in a close fight, it has been Neuville who has prospered.
And more often than not it’s been for a rally win.
Aside from México 2023, here are the other times when Neuville got the better of Evans on a WRC Sunday:
Rally GB 2014
For: 5th place
Not a rally remembered for Neuville and Evans’ scrap for fifth – rather another Sébastien Ogier win and a second place for Evans’ team-mate Mikko Hirvonen as he bowed out of the WRC.
But just 7.9s split Neuville’s Hyundai and Evans’ Ford before the final leg’s six stages.
Initially it was advantage Evans on his home soil as he trimmed Neuville’s advantage to just 5.1s across the first three stages.
But Neuville responded across the second pass to set a string of top-three times that forced Evans to settle for sixth, 9.4s in arrears.
Interestingly, that pattern tallies with Toyota team principal’s assessment today that Evans tends to be stronger than Neuville on the first pass but Neuville quicker on the second.
Rally Argentina 2017
For: 1st place
By far the most famous example on this list where Neuville snatched Evans’ maiden WRC victory from his fingertips on the El Condor powerstage in Argentina.
Utilizing his Dmack rubber against the rest on Michelins, Evans pulled out a 55.7s lead over privateer Mads Østberg on the first day. Neuville was a shave over a minute behind.
But the Neuville fightback began on Saturday as he quickly disposed of Østberg and narrowed Evans’ advantage. However, Evans made Neuville’s task that bit easier with a spin at the end of Saturday that drew the Hyundai just 11.5s behind heading into Sunday.
Neuville was up for it and woke up on a charge, scoring a decisive 8.4s stage win on the penultimate stage to trail Evans by just 0.6s ahead of the final test.
Both drivers gave it everything, but a small mistake on entry to a narrow suspension bridge cost Evans as Neuville stole 1.3s from him to rip the rally win from the Welshman’s hands.
Tour de Corse 2019
For: 1st place
Another example of Evans losing a rally victory to Neuville on the final stage, but this time there was far less the M-Sport driver could do about it.
Evans had shone in Corsica four years earlier when the heavens opened to score a breakthrough second place, but he was similarly up for it in 2019 in the dry too.
Jostling with Toyota’s Ott Tänak to lead after the first day, Evans fell behind on Saturday but was back in the lead when Tänak punctured in the afternoon. But he then lost the lead again on the day’s final stage with a poor time that allowed Neuville to sneak ahead.
Evans’ response, however, was emphatic. Fastest by 8.8s on Sunday morning, and 16s quicker than Neuville, looked to have earned him the win with an 11.5s advantage on the powerstage.
But a pothole – which wasn’t marked in Evans’ pacenotes as he had overtaken a car at that spot on the recce – ruined everything. The resultant puncture didn’t just cost him the win but dropped Evans down to third place overall.
Monte Carlo Rally 2020
For: 1st place
On his first rally in a Toyota, Evans was the talk of the town as he was embroiled in a fight for the win with fellow Toyota Yaris WRC debutant Ogier and Hyundai’s Neuville.
After 12 stages and two-and-a-half days of intense competition, Evans was upstaging his more decorated team-mate to lead the Monte by 4.9s after Saturday, with Neuville tucked in 6.4s off the lead.
But on the final day he struggled to find the same rhythm as before, and it was Neuville’s i20 Coupe WRC that became the clear pacesetter.
Neuville jumped Ogier immediately on Sunday morning and by SS14 of 16 had moved ahead of Evans too.
As the Hyundai driver shot off into the distance to record an emotional win considering how close he had come the year before, Ogier got the better of Evans too – defeating his team-mate by 1.7s as he moved ahead on the final stage.
Rally Japan 2022
For: 1st place
Last year’s season finale is often remembered as the scene of Hyundai rubbing salt into Toyota’s wounds with victory on its home soil, but Evans could very easily have won Rally Japan rather than Neuville had things panned out marginally differently.
Tire choice was the big talking point of the final day. With heavy rain expected, Neuville took a mix of soft, hard and wet compound Pirellis – a good compromise somewhat suitable for all conditions.
But Evans was bolder, taking three softs and three hards but crucially no wets. The thinking was that Evans would be able to utilize the softs even in the rain, and then have enough of an advantage that he wouldn’t lose out by not having wets at the end of the rally.
However nobody would ever find out if the strategy was correct.
Evans trailed Neuville by four seconds overnight and got to within 0.6s after Sunday’s opener, but a puncture on the next stage threw him out of the battle. And with one of his softs now used, Evans struggled massively in the coming downpour and finished a distant fifth as Neuville won.