Ott Tänak is the hero of the story. And like all good heroes, his path has been far from smooth – battling with a difficult car and complex team politics that have led to him making the brave decision to walk away from Hyundai Motorsport one year early.
Where there’s a hero, there’s often a villain, so it would be easy to suggest that Thierry Neuville fits this role as the driver who was in Tänak’s way in Greece, questioned him in Belgium and has been criticized in public by Tänak on more than one occasion this season.
But Neuville is no villain. Neuville is simply a driver who is doing his utmost to try and win the championship. So even if, as Tänak says, Neuville is manipulating things in the team to suit him, that is absolutely his prerogative.
Neuville is not the reason Tänak has decided to leave Hyundai, as Colin Clark explained on this week’s edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod.
“It is very easy to paint Thierry Neuville as the bad man in all of this, and he’s not,” Clark said.
“And listen I’m hearing, even within the team, some division from one or two people last night [when Tänak’s departure was confirmed] perhaps getting a little bit lairy, blaming various factions when they shouldn’t be.
“There are others to blame other than the drivers for this whole debacle in Hyundai.
Thierry Neuville has one intention in his life and that is to win the drivers’ title, and he will do everything he can to win the drivers’ title – as does Ott Tänak, as will Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanperä, whoever.
“They are focused, driven, dedicated professional drivers. They will do what they can. Thierry Neuville, I’m sure, doesn’t want to be in the middle of all these politics, doesn’t want to be in the middle of all this decision making; he just wants to be able to get on with driving that car, developing that car and winning rallies.
“It’s very easy, and there’s a lot of it on social media with people painting Neuville as this big, bad bogey man and he’s far from it.
“He really is far from it.”
After all, Neuville never even wanted Tänak to leave. Speaking in the post-event press conference after Rally Spain, held a few hours before Tänak communicated his decision with the public, Neuville said:
“It’s not for me to make the decision for the drivers. What I like is to have Ott as my team-mate because he is the strongest team-mate I have ever had.
“It makes an additional challenge for me, but it is also motivating as well for me.”
Was Neuville a fierce rival for Tänak? Yes. Was Neuville necessarily thrilled to welcome Tänak to Hyundai back in 2020? No. But he’s not the one that’s driven Tänak out the door. It all stems from problems further above, says Clark.
“I think he was promised things that just weren’t delivered,” he added
“I think when [Andrea] Adamo was there, he understood that yeah, he was going to a team that had a car that was difficult to drive, a car developed for Thierry, but my understanding is he was given assurances.
“He was given assurances that this year’s car, he would have some input in, and it would be developed to his driving style.
“Tänak is a massively complex character and he’s a man that needs to be managed, and if he’s not managed then you’ve got the potential for all sorts of chaos.
“But when Adamo left there was no-one managing, there was no-one offering assurances that Tänak needed, and we then saw this power struggle in the team – the power struggle was between various factions.
“There was a struggle for engineering philosophy and that struggle came within the engineering department and with the drivers. Tänak took that car that was a dog in Monte Carlo, and he could see how to make it better. Thierry Neuville took that car that was a dog in Monte Carlo, and he could see how to make it better.
“The issue was that they were both completely different design philosophies, and at that point you’ve got an issue on your hands – unless you’ve got someone absolutely guiding that team and saying, ‘this is how we’re going to do this,’ then you’ve got an almost unworkable situation.
“Two very strong, very capable, very competent drivers with very different driving styles who want, quite rightly, a car that they are capable to drive to a win.
“I don’t blame Thierry Neuville at all for this situation right now in Hyundai because it’s not his fault. It’s not his fault he wants to win.”