Rally Italy is turning into another disaster for Hyundai with Ott Tänak retiring from the lead on Saturday – and not for the first time this season.
Re-read this analysis from throughout the Portugal weekend about the moments that have cost Hyundai so far in 2021.
Capturing the mood or fortunes of Hyundai Motorsport can be done via the words of its team principal Andrea Adamo – if they can be eked out on a bad day – and that was very much the case on Saturday of Rally Portugal.
First there was Dani Sordo. It wasn’t obvious at first, but as on many of his recent rallies his tire management was lacking compared to his rivals and on pace alone he went from being nine seconds off the rally lead to 33.7 in the space of five stages.
During that time Thierry Neuville retired from the day to preserve his car, then Ott Tänak lost a wheel and exited proceedings too. A Hyundai 1-2-3 had turned into a Hyundai ‘2-retired-retired’.
In the space of the same 24 hours, Adamo went from using Colin McRae’s heroic turnaround on Rally Argentina in 1998 as an inspiration for Neuville’s repair efforts to saying: “More of this s*** there cannot be. This car is the f****** fastest here and the fastest car has to win.”
More damning, but Adamo is fiercely loyal about his staff and the work they do. Take this remark he made to DirtFish at the end of last season: “Everyone who drove for Hyundai in 2019 and 2020 deserves to be seriously supported by me personally as a thanks for all the jobs they have done.”
Through Hyundai’s highs and lows he has stuck by them, but increasingly the lows have been self-inflicted. Some even attributable to Adamo.
“I did so many mistakes in my job that no one pointed out because I’m not always under the camera,” he added in 2020. And he was frank about the highs too.
Hyundai’s maiden manufacturers’ title in the World Rally Championship was won in 2019 because it was more reliable than its opposition, he said. In 2020 it won the title because it was at least as fast as its opposition.
And 2021 started with a mistake that Adamo was quick to take the blame for. The first loop of the Monte Carlo Rally had Tänak leading, and Neuville and Sordo in fourth and sixth. By the end of the next morning, following a decision to split the tire strategy, Tänak was 24.8s off the lead in third and Neuville was over a minute back.
To be fair to Adamo, it was the debut of Pirelli’s WRC rubber in some of the most difficult winter conditions faced in a long time, and after limited testing.
The tire choice hurt Adamo, but he saw the wider picture and said: “Preparation for Monte Carlo was not done in the way it should have been and neither the management of the rally itself”.
His summary of the event was “we have done many mistakes altogether in one rally”, and he’s saying much the same in Portugal.
I know that my people is working incredibly hard, and I know they didn’t [do that] to see the results not coming,Andrea Adamo
Neuville thought the Monte feedback was “maybe a little bit too much”, but Adamo got tough and after a self-reflective phase turned Hyundai Motorsport back into a rally-winning machine on Arctic Rally Finland.
This time he was saying he saw “a different approach from all my people” and praised the team’s fightback mentality as Tänak dominated. This time the preparations had included rallies on snow and a choice of test roads that were crucial for getting the advantage over Toyota.
But the return to asphalt for Rally Croatia fuelled words very similar to Monte Carlo, with Adamo criticising his own decisions.
“In the last three years I’ve worked for Hyundai in this position. I think every time we’ve had to make a difficult tire choice, we’ve never really picked the proper one,” he said as Toyota took a 1-2.
When Hyundai landed in Portugal, it made the right choices though. First there was testing, where it picked drier days at a very different time to Toyota and pretty much had its set-up nailed for Friday while its rivals were still squandering for confidence on turn-in at corners the shorter wheelbase Yaris WRC should have had the advantage over the i20 Coupe WRC.
Then there was the usage of the Pirelli gravel tires, with just eight softs to last the rally alongside the more generous allocation of the frequently less suitable hard. There were risks taken, with Neuville even taking the unprecedented step of running two hard tires on the left of his car and two softs on the right.
In addition to that, all three Hyundai drivers were scaling in the pace when they needed to to make the tyres last, and Neuville had a 32.8s advantage over Sébastien Ogier who was one position ahead of him on the road. Every decision made in team’s service park headquarters, including instructions to the drivers, only worked to Hyundai’s advantage.
When Neuville struck a tree stump on Friday, blew that advantage and left Hyundai with a two-prong attack rather than three, Adamo continued making the right decisions. Bar one. And perhaps he knows it’s one he can’t make.
He didn’t tell Tänak to slow down.
It’s the kind of command few would dare to make to the 2019 World Rally Champion, but in not doing so Adamo’s now having to say the opposite to Sordo going into the rally’s final day.
“I know that my people is working incredibly hard, I know how much they did and what are they doing to prepare [the] rally in the proper way, and I know they didn’t [do that] to see the results not coming,” Adamo said soon after Tänak’s retirement.
“My thoughts are for my people that I think can be frustrated, so my job now is to cheer them up. But first of all I have to try to calm down myself because again I know how hard they are working, and how well as well [given I’m] seeing the results.
“But between yesterday and today, we just wasted a great occasion, and if you see that today the situation is quite dramatic in terms of both driver and manufacturer championship.”
Sordo goes into Sunday with four of his eight soft tires still available to use and with a 10.7s deficit to the rally leader. In effect, Hyundai has prepared Sordo for a run to victory in the same way it did for Neuville and Tänak before they ripped off wheels. And if Adamo knows that Sordo has the faster car in the battle for the lead then he should know there is more than one way to win a rally…
“He didn’t say: ‘The car needs to make the finish…’, he told me he has two cars out and it’s the same to have three [out]” was Adamo’s commands at the end of Saturday, according to Sordo.