You’d written off the 2022 World Rally Championship season, hadn’t you? Be honest. I had. A Kalle Rovanperä walkover from round three, the hype and excitement about the new-generation Rally1 cars was soon drowned by one driver emphatically marking his territory.
As narratives go, it’s hardly been edge-of-the-seat stuff of late – as much as we’ve all wanted to pretend that’s not the case.
But we’ve been given a bonus chapter. Rovanperä’s form has disappeared. Hyundai has turned things around. And the relationship between its drivers, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak, is deteriorating rapidly.
Goodbye borefest. Hello box office viewing.
You have to feel a degree of sympathy for Julien Moncet. Leading Hyundai Motorsport in 2022 has proved to be quite the challenge. Just as things on the car side have finally begun to improve, Moncet has a new situation to manage.
And he did his best to control it in the lead up to the Acropolis Rally, suggesting that certain comments should be kept internally instead of being said to the world’s media.
That, of course, was in the wake of Neuville and Tänak’s bizarre spat on the Ypres Rally, when Neuville essentially called Tänak’s transmission problem into question at the end of a stage. Tänak then gave his boss Moncet a very public vote of no confidence, saying he is not the right man for the team leadership job.
Neuville and Tänak’s spat was chalked up as a miscommunication by both drivers, and Moncet too. But the bruises still showed as the pair were at it again just three weeks later in Greece.
Each viewpoint was understandable when considering each driver’s personal context. Neuville had worked hard to make his way to the front of the rally, so why would he want to give that up just so that his team-mate can grab some extra championship points that probably won’t make a difference anyway – particularly when Tänak had won both of the last two events, one of them on Neuville’s home turf, and Neuville hadn’t won since October 2021?
And as much as Tänak may be a massive outside shot for the title, while he has a shot he is always going to still take it. So when it was his team-mate ahead of him, why wouldn’t Hyundai swapping the two around be the right solution in his eyes when it could score the exact same result for the manufacturers’ championship but improve his potential of lifting the driver’s championship for the brand too?
Fair play, quite frankly. But what made this growing beef between Neuville and Tänak so intriguing was how they each chose to deal with the situation.
Neuville was so frustrated by it, and the continued questioning, that he walked out of DirtFish’s interview early, while Tänak was throwing little jibes left, right and center – suggesting that if Neuville was behind him the opposite team order would’ve been given, and so on.
That’s not the behavior of two individuals who have a particular fondness for one another at this moment in time.
So in Belgium the match was lit, but Greece was where the fire truly started. Hyundai did its best to control the blaze with a very controlled PR narrative as soon as the rally was over, celebrating its historic 1-2-3 result. But has the fire done lasting damage to the foundations? Tantalizing, history suggests it has.
Inter-team fallouts are nothing new in the WRC – the two most famous falling in 1995 and 2011.
In ’95 the stakes couldn’t have been higher as Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae were fighting for the title when McRae was ordered to finish behind Sainz in Spain – a decision he really struggled to accept. McRae won the war, taking the title and sending Sainz packing to drive for Ford.
In 2011, Citroën promoted Sébastien Ogier to drive alongside long-term superstar Sébastien Loeb for what should have been a dream, but turned out to be a living nightmare.
Ogier had no interest in playing a supporting role to Loeb and as the year wore on he made that point clearer and clearer – both in his attitude and his rally-winning performances.
It all came to a head in Germany when, with Citroën top brass in attendance and a massive lead over the chasing pack, Olivier Quesnel called the battle off as early as the end of day one. Loeb was just 7.4s ahead of Ogier.
Ogier’s blistering stage times and reluctance to speak to stage-end reporters said it all. As did his infamous and perfectly delivered “at least now I can see there is justice in this sport” line when Loeb picked up a puncture and Ogier led home the 1-2 finish instead.
Afterwards, the two Sébs barely spoke. Citroën threw its weight behind its then seven-time champion Loeb and Ogier even accepted a year outside top-line machinery as an escape, joining forces with Volkswagen.
We’ve not quite reached those levels of histrionics so far in the Hyundai camp, but it’s becoming very clear that Tänak’s patience in particular is being sorely tested, and perhaps Neuville – at this point something of a Hyundai lifer – is growing wearsome of Tänak’s sarcastic remarks.
Juicy. Spicy. Whatever you want to call it, it certainly isn’t boring.
Just seven weeks ago, after Rally Estonia, I wrote another opinion column explaining that Hyundai’s struggles in recent years have robbed us of a tantalizing match-up between Tänak and Neuville.
“Adding their names to the same payroll should have unleashed this rivalry into a modern classic – an intriguing fight to prove who’s best,” I wrote.
“But instead, Neuville and Tänak’s efforts haven’t been focused on beating each other but working with each other to better the team.”
That’s not aged too well, has it? But back in July I wondered what sort of relationship Tänak and Neuville’s would be if Hyundai began to hit form and suddenly these two alpha males were pitched against each one another, one on one.
We now have our answer. Not a particularly healthy one. Bad news for Hyundai, brilliant news for everyone else.
It’s great for Toyota and M-Sport, who can only benefit from any disharmony within Hyundai – potentially even by acquiring the services of one of its prized drivers – and its brilliant for all of us who can absorb some pantomime drama unfold in real time.
Can Neuville and Tänak kiss and make up, or is something just bound to give? As they say in the world of show-bizz, stay tuned to find out.
Sporting narratives are great, but it’s human stories that are truly engaging as we can all genuinely relate to it. If this gripping, developing storyline isn’t a huge reason to keep us all extremely glued to the World Rally Championship, well I don’t know what is.