Thierry Neuville’s done it. It’s hard to believe it took him a decade, but in 2023 he returned to the Rally Finland podium for the first time since 2013.
If somebody had told him that after that stunning drive to second for M-Sport, it wook take him another 10 years to make the Finnish rostrum he’d have kicked them where it hurts!
“For sure, for sure,” Neuville told DirtFish.
“It has been a struggle, it has been always difficult coming here,” he added. “Yeah, it was hard to find the motivation.
“I think it’s a lot about the feeling in the car and the performance of course but the feedback you get from the car was great this weekend.
“Already in Estonia I felt good and again here, so I’m satisfied and it’s good to finish on a high before a couple of weeks of holidays.”
So while Neuville enjoys his vacation, let’s look back on his struggle to make the Finnish podium again and how he managed to turn it around this year:
Neuville sniffed an opportunity to lead a more competitive-looking Hyundai for 2014 so moved there after a single season with M-Sport, and he finished a lowly sixth in the standings in a year where he did at least claim his first World Rally Championship win.
His results in Scandinavia highlighted how tricky his year usually was, as he had a damaged wheel carrier in Sweden then stopped several times in one stage before relying on super-rally to finish 28th, and in Finland he was eighth before a rollcage-damaging crash on SS9 sent him into retirement.
A difficult season for Neuville.
The bad form took a mental toll, and Neuville was continually frustrated by his lack of pace in Finland. He started day two of the rally by saying “I’m not in a position to fight” while in fifth place, and his remarks only got more pessimistic.
SS13: “They are going so fast it’ unbelievable.”
SS14: “Frustrating when you see the others, the lines I’m trying to follow, but it’s not possible. Seems the drivers in front have more traction.”
SS15: “Time was OK, but the car, [feels like I’m] running on three cylinders sometimes.”
SS16: “It smells like fuel, but I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s getting worse and worse.”
Neuville moved up to fourth on SS16, and after working “quite a lot on the car”, it finally became a comfortable drive on the stages.
Actually, it was on the road sections where he seemed to have drama thereon. While fourth place was his third best result of the year, the gap to his opposition (2m21.9s to third and 3m58.7s to first) was absolutely colossal.
Neuville was far more competitive across all events in 2016, but his Scandi struggles continued. In Sweden he was 14th after a transmission issue, then a broken rear differential and then a broken damper, while in Finland he started off with the setup in the wrong place and complained of fogged up glasses on the opening day.
On day two he was “missing lateral grip” for a few stages and dropped from third to sixth, but he and Nicolas Gilsoul “tried our best” and recovered to fourth as the lead Hyundai entry.
The new technical regulations for 2017 led to more powerful and faster cars, making forest stages and their jumps even more spectacular. Not that those details would have helped Neuville.
However his new Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC was more competitive, and in Sweden he led until losing a wheel on SS15. “A small mistake cost us the win again,” he rued.
But that showed that for the first time Hyundai and Neuville could be a victory threat in Finland, and to put that theory to the test they contested the one-day AutoGlym Rally in Finland as a warm-up. He won by 1m38s over the Škoda Fabia R5-driving Ole Christian Veiby.
While that result didn’t mean anything given the opposition, it was the confidence on the stages that was more important. But that confidence had drained two weeks later.
Neuville was in 12th after SS3 of Rally Finland, but said he was targeting the top five as he struggled for grip. After the iconic Ouninpohja stage he said “our car is working on all other the rallies, which is nice, but not Finland”.
He eventually finished sixth, after 25 stages, and almost a minute away from the podium places.
The disappointment of 2017 lowered Neuville’s hopes for the next year, but then he led from SS3 to the finish on Rally Sweden. “We didn’t expect to be so fast,” he admitted.
Two wins and two other podiums in the next five rallies meant he was championship leader heading into Finland, and therefore ran first on the road. He was second fastest on the opening superspecial, but was down to ninth after SS2, in 10th following a spin on SS5, and only once he stopped being the road sweeper on the final day was he able to look even vaguely competitive as he went fourth fastest on the powerstage and finished ninth overall.
While retiring in the title-deciding Rally Australia was really what stopped Neuville from being 2018 world champion, his Finland result was what put him in the position of chaser rather than the chased come the season finale as his lowest-scoring result until the finale.
Neuville really wanted to give Hyundai a strong result in Finland after five seasons of frustration.
That desire went to plan at first, as Neuville was typically strong on the opening Harju superspecial and led the rally.
“We have worked hard since the beginning of the year, especially for this event,” he said. “I hope this will benefit us at some point. I am well prepared and I want to bring back a good result from Finland for the team.”
But he was down to ninth by the next stage, and complained about his road position through the rally’s second day despite enjoying his car as the pre-event work seemed to benefit as planned. But ultimately he was off the pace, and only finished sixth after team-mate Craig Breen got a penalty.
Rally Finland did not run in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but Neuville did finish sixth in Sweden (which that year was basically a gravel rally) and was back to struggling on that event. Those struggles continued into 2021 when he hit the Finnish stages, particularly with tire overheating (an issue which had been noticed in previous years too).
A winter version of Rally Finland ran instead of Rally Sweden, and Neuville – with new co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe – won a stage en route to third place. He was only 2.3s off second, and conceded 19.8s to the winner over the rally’s 10 stages.
Could he repeat that form in summer? Scratch that. Could he repeat that form in fall?
Moving Rally Finland from early August to October posed a different challenge, and Neuville started the event by going second fastest on Harju. He was seventh fastest on SS2, and was in fifth overall before radiator damage ended his event on SS14.
Would the introduction of the new Rally1 cars turn Hyundai and Neuville into Finland winners? Yes and no. It was mostly the same old story.
Once again he won Harju: “I always like the superspecial stages and I had some great fun in there, but tomorrow is a whole different world,” he said. “At the moment I do not feel comfortable. We made some setup changes in shakedown and I’m crossing my fingers that tomorrow I will have a better feeling.”
The 10th-fastest time on SS2 dropped him to fifth, and he noted “as soon as the road gets more flat, I have no grip”. He lost another three places on SS3, then was in seventh for the rest of Friday.
On Saturday he rose to fifth, but said “it’s not a secret that we can not fight with the guys at the front anymore, and that’s not our target either”. He retained his position to the end, finishing over two minutes behind rally-winning team-mate Ott Tänak and 40.4s behind fourth place.
Tänak had at least finally delivered Hyundai a win on Rally Finland after eight years of trying.
By this point Neuville wasn’t shy of telling the world that fast rallies like Finland just didn’t play to his strengths. But on Rally Estonia, a gravel rally similar to Finland, Neuville led a 2-3-5 result for Hyundai.
And in Finland he proved that speed was no fluke as he finally got himself back onto the podium.
Up against Elfyn Evans for the win, Neuville didn’t quite have enough. On Saturday he frequently spoke about fighting to find grip, and driving to the maximum while simultaneously struggling and losing time to his rivals.
Then on Sunday it was just about making sure he didn’t throw away his second place, with his eyes no longer looking forward after Evans had added 25.2s to his lead the previous day.
But it didn’t really matter. After so many years of trying, Neuville was back spraying the champagne on the fastest rally of the year.