If it had been Elfyn Evans that turned in the performance Thierry Neuville did on last week’s Rally Spain, we’d have all been praising his steely determination and blinding raw pace.
If it had been Sébastien Ogier that pulled it off, we’d have been lauding his awesome ability and what a great world champion he is.
But with Neuville, barely an eyelid has been batted or a cliché written – at least in the English-speaking press.
The distraction of a prolonged World Rally Championship title fight between Evans and Ogier did steal the limelight from Neuville’s crushing win, but the Hyundai driver has garnered a reputation now where it’s basically impossible for him to impress.
If he crashes or doesn’t perform as he should, he’s called a bottle merchant. If he punches in a domineering performance, people simply say that’s what he should be doing more often. Put simply, he can’t really win over the wider audience.
To an extent this conundrum is understandable given Neuville’s WRC record over the years.
Everybody knows the statistics: five times the title runner-up; four behind Ogier and then the one season Ogier didn’t win Neuville lost out to Ott Tänak.
Neuville is consequently widely viewed as a driver capable of utter brilliance on his day, not every day. And again, for a large extent of his career, this was perhaps true.
Remember the careless blunders at the start of the 2017 season that cost him two certain victories in Monte Carlo and Sweden – the latter really rather embarrassing as he clipped a bollard on a superspecial – and perhaps even that year’s title?
These typify the viewpoint that Neuville is clearly very good but too prone to the errors you don’t associate Ogier, and to an extent Tänak, with.
But I’m here to tell you to stop believing that. I challenge you to review Neuville’s 2021 season as if you’d just landed on Earth – with a fresh set of eyes without the past context – and tell me honestly what you think.
You’d feel he’s quite unlucky not to be joining Ogier and Evans in the Monza Rally title fight, wouldn’t you?
Third was as good as a win on the Monte given the absurd set of circumstances Neuville was confronted with – long-term co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul walked away days before the rally and Martijn Wydaeghe stepped in.
A repeat result followed on Arctic Rally Finland and in Croatia; although arguably Neuville should’ve finished first there. But he can’t be blamed for that, a stalling Hyundai was the chief culprit.
Portugal was a major blip as he crashed out of second place with an obscenely ambitious pacenote but he was back on the podium in Italy and within a rally win of the points lead despite Ogier’s dominance of the season’s early phase.
Nobody adapted to the challenge of Safari Rally Kenya like Neuville did and he was nearly a minute clear before his Hyundai’s suspension gave up – at this point of the season a growing theme as Tänak encountered the same in Portugal and Italy.
The Kenyan retirement was the killer, as instead of closing to under 20 points behind Ogier, Neuville was suddenly 56 back.
He regrouped though, claiming a podium in Estonia, a fine win on Ypres under immense home pressure before power-steering failure restricted him to eighth on the Acropolis and a radiator leak forced him out of Finland.
That all leads us here, to Rally Spain. And for all the hyperbole surrounding Evans’ emphatic SS1 win, Neuville was the one in control last weekend. He recorded an even bigger stage win (by 7.9s) later on Friday morning but Evans stole the show on that test due to his saving of a “hairy” moment. From there, however, Neuville simply tore his rivals to shreds to win 10 of the event’s 17 stages.
It means only Ogier has won more rallies than Neuville in 2021 and no driver has stood on the podium more times; Neuville reaching the rostrum seven times out of 11 thus far. And on the other four disappointing rounds, he’s only let himself down 25% of the time with his car accounting for the other 75%.
Ogier and Evans’ respective ratios equate to 100% driver error for Ogier and 50% car, 50% driver for Evans. The Toyota and Hyundai are on a par in terms of raw performance, but the Hyundai just hasn’t been as reliable.
Neuville raised eyebrows after his victory in Ypres when he suggested he deserved to be ahead of Ogier in the championship, but he was right. The evidence is there to support it.
Spain was a case in point. It was Neuville at his dangerous best, and a painful reminder that he would have been a fascinating prospect in the 2021 title fight.
He seems to have found another level of consistency since partnering with Wydaeghe – maybe this gave him a small reset he needed – and he finally looks ready to atone for the errors of 2017 and the capitulation of 2018 where he had a good points lead but perhaps wilted under that pressure and was ultimately edged by Ogier.
But it’s lazy to tarnish Neuville with the same criticism he faced three or four years ago. Back then he wasn’t quite as composed as he should be under pressure, making some unforced errors and generally just not looking quite like the complete package, but Neuville has evolved. Now he looks to be the complete package driving a frequently incomplete one.
Perhaps Neuville’s public persona works against him. He’s a confident – and often quite bullish – character who maybe isn’t ever afraid to speak his mind. That can make him less endearing to many as the fun-loving Oliver Solberg, ultra cool Tänak or the emotional Craig Breen.
But in motorsport those sentiments are irrelevant when it comes to results. Neuville is in peak form, so if Hyundai’s 2022 Rally1 challenger is up to the task, he will be too.
What do you think could have been of Neuville’s 2021 title attack, and is he a world champion quality driver? Leave your thoughts in the comments