Thierry Neuville has suggested he could have been ahead of Sébastien Ogier, and therefore leading the World Rally Championship, had his suspension not failed while leading Safari Rally Kenya.
Ogier is currently seen as favorite to win this year’s title following a hot streak of four victories in six rallies.
The big swing came in Africa, where Ogier started the final day third and over a minute adrift of the lead but won as he overhauled Takamoto Katsuta for what became first when Neuville retired.
It put Ogier more than 30 points clear of closest rival Elfyn Evans in the championship – an advantage he has increased over the succeeding two rounds – and, at the time, 56 points clear of Neuville who would have likely moved into second in the standings had he not retired.
Neuville has since beaten Ogier in Estonia and Belgium to sit 38 points behind with four rallies to go. Aside from his Kenyan non-score and a total of just four points from Portugal, Neuville has stood on the podium on 75% of the rallies this year (six times from eight starts).
Other than Kenya we would be right behind Ogier and maybe even in front because we gave him a victory over there.Thierry Neuville
Neuville said “our form has been good” when asked by DirtFish in the wake of his Ypres Rally win – his first WRC victory since January 2020 – if he feels his performances this season have been at a title-contending level.
“Of course I did a big mistake in Portugal when the pacenotes were definitely too optimistic but other than that in Kenya we would have deserved strong points and if we could have combined that with a win here, we would be right behind Ogier and maybe even in front because we gave him a victory over there,” he added.
“So that would’ve been a strong season so far but unfortunately the luck was missing over there [in Kenya].”
Looking ahead to the Acropolis Rally, Neuville – now level with Evans on points – is prepared to adopt an Ogier-esque approach to the weekend where he’ll aim for victory but if that becomes impossible he will settle for the next-best position.
“I don’t know if we’re actually going to start second or third on the road but it’s going to be tough with the road cleaning,” he said. “Elfyn and me we are equal in the points now.
“Yeah, let’s see [if we can win]. Of course the goal as always is to aim for the best and do a little bit like Ogier does, always try to win and if it works it’s better, if it doesn’t take what you can take.”
Working on hypotheticals is always dangerous because by altering one variable, how can you guarantee all of the others will remain constant?
If Neuville’s suspension hadn’t buckled on the Safari, would he have approached the next event the same? And likewise would Ogier have pushed a little bit harder in Estonia and Belgium with less of a points margin to sit on? It’s all too messy to be conclusive about.
But, on face value, it’s hard to disagree with Neuville’s take that he should, at the very least, be much closer to Ogier than he currently is in the points. While he may not have driven with the same swashbuckling swagger he did in 2017 and ’18 in particular, 2021 has been an incredibly impressive campaign.
It’s easy to forget Neuville was second in the championship after the Arctic as the hype surrounded shock points leader Kalle Rovanperä. It’s easy to forget he also could – and perhaps should – have won in Croatia had his Hyundai’s engine not stalled a few too many times. The focus again was elsewhere, on Evans getting done by Ogier on the final stage, but Neuville was only 8.1 seconds back at the finish.
Portugal, as he admitted, was a bit of a glaring error, but every protagonist is allowed their mistake. Ogier made his in the Arctic and Evans fumbled in Kenya. Neuville’s Portugal mistake and then inability to capitalize on a poor weekend for Evans made him look out of it, but victory in Ypres has propelled him right back in.
The trump card Neuville may have too is the fact that Ott Tänak’s campaign is in tatters. If it needs to, Hyundai can sacrifice Tänak if a situation presents itself in order to boost Neuville’s points total. Toyota aren’t going to do that with both Ogier and Evans scrapping for honors.
Ogier will be anxiously watching over his shoulder for Neuville though. There’ll certainly be more sleep lost over Neuville’s charge than Evans’, as he scored less than Ogier on Ypres despite beating him and is looking an increasingly benign threat.