Was Neuville’s technical problem real or a tactical ploy?

DirtFish dug deeper into the Neuville fuel-pressure drama that left Evans first on the road


In the lead-up to Rally Sweden, on Thursday night and Friday morning, Thierry Neuville had said the same thing from start to finish. Running first on the road was going to be a millstone around his neck, a guarantee that time would be lost hand over fist from sweeping loose snow away.

That misery was temporarily paused when, in the seconds leading up to entering time control TC6, Neuville’s i20 N Rally2 stopped and had its bonnet up mere meters from the entry boards to check in to the second pass of Norrby.

Neuville had been 41.1s slower than his Hyundai team-mate Esapekka Lappi on the prior test, #42 Brattby. Suddenly, it looked like he might not start Norrby at all, as both Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe started running around his silent i20.

Neuville held the starter button on his steering wheel in more than once, waiting for it to fire up. And, eventually, four minutes after he he supposed to enter the stage, the i20 fired into life and off he went, checking in. As a consequence, he was levied with 40 seconds of lateness penalties were accrued.

But, crucially for Elfyn Evans and his hopes of limiting his Friday time loss, the Toyota driver was now first into the stage, having checked in on time. That would mean facing the brunt of road sweeping which Neuville had suffered with until then.


Evans' Toyota was forced into snowplow mode

Later, on stage seven, Evans skated straight on at what would usually have been a flat left-hander, simply due to the volume of loose snow on the road. And Neuville’s time loss had been huge on #42 Brattby prior to his stoppage: in the end he was 42nd-fastest, slower even than all but one of the Junior WRC contenders in Rally3 cars.

Given the massive metaphorical penalty from running first on the road, naturally, questions were asked. If it looks like an attempt at road-order fiddling, is that what it is?

When the hood on Neuville’s car started to flap about – the left-side hood pin having not been fastened correctly – it meant the optics became less clear cut. But Evans was a tad suspicious anyway.

His impulse initially got the better of him at the end of Norrby: “I guess the spirit of competition has gone out the window. So there you go,” was Evans’ initial reaction.


Toyota's world-title hopeful was clearly not amused

By the time DirtFish spoke to him at the end of the day, that opinion had softened slightly. But there remained doubts in his mind.

“I still don’t know what really went on and if it was genuine or not,” Evans told DirtFish. “To me, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there we go.”

“I don’t really get the logic to drop 40 seconds to gain 25 or 30 seconds back, I just don’t see it. So, it makes me think that it’s not intentional, but…”

The problem was it unduly compromised his afternoon.

“It’s not ideal, we know what the penalty is in these conditions, it’s clear to see when the roles are reversed and the times are the other way around.”

Over in the Hyundai camp, the idea his stoppage was somehow intentional wasn’t being entertained. Both driver and team were clear: it was a fuel pressure issue that was carried throughout the afternoon loop and simply reared its head at an inopportune moment.

Neuville himself was first to offer up an explanation: “It’s a problem we have since after service, since refuel the car wouldn’t start,” he said.


The two drivers' position swap proved to be a major talking point

“It’s a fuel pressure problem and we carried it on all afternoon. Suddenly before stage six the car wasn’t running properly, we had to do a reset, we couldn’t get it started. We tried as long as we could to get it fired up and when it worked we immediately went to the stage.”

And Neuville also had a rebuttal for Evans’ earlier comments.

“In his situation, he doesn’t know what’s going on so maybe he thought we were doing tactics. But I can confirm that we didn’t.”

If a technical problem did exist, the timing was still, at first glance, somewhat convenient. Neuville stood to gain little but the team’s arch-rival for both championships would lose out running first on the road.

Evans running first on the road put him in a more compromised position relative to Adrien Fourmaux, to whom he lost position in the afternoon loop and will run one place higher in the order tomorrow as a consequence.

Diving deeper with Hyundai technical guru Christian Loriaux, the specifics of the fuel pressure problem also appeared to be a matter of timing. It’s also not a new problem, he confirmed.

“It’s mainly the low-pressure fuel system that feeds the high-pressure fuel pump that causes a problem,” explained Loriaux. “So we didn’t build the low-pressure fuel pressure, so he had to work on it a bit to get it fired up. It’s not really a big, big problem. We don’t know 100% where it comes from, but it’s not a big problem. But it stopped him for the time it did.”

“We’ve had that before, but it’s not too scary. But you lose the time to start the engine. I mean, it’s always a problem if it happens when you have no time.

“If you’re OK on time, it’s no problem. You lose a bit of time to sort it out, to prime it. It’s not a big deal. You know it’s not a showstopper, as long as you’ve got time. If you stall it in a stage, you would lose more.”


Hyundai's Christian Loriaux (left) had some sympathy for Evans

Loriaux was also sympathetic towards any suspicions Toyota might have about the legitimacy of Neuville’s fuel pressure issue.

Hyundai has been clear from the beginning: team orders are no problem. But Loriaux expressed an opinion that shuffling the road order with late check-in games was outside the bounds of ethically acceptable team orders.

“I can understand that [Toyota] could feel that, but it’s not the case for me,” said Loriaux. “I wouldn’t want to do that personally.

“If it would have been tactical, we should have done or we would have done better, because I’m not sure that we gained anything out of it. So I think if it had been tactical, it would have been a bad tactic.

“You say the rules are the rules. For me, I never have a problem with a position within a team, because I think team orders between drivers and so on – it’s a team sport – so I don’t have problems with that.

“To swap positions on the road, it’s more a sportive, ethical thing, and I wouldn’t agree with that. So, it was an issue with it starting, and that’s it. I can understand that they could feel robbed.”


Evans found that opening the road can be a lonely place

Going into hypotheticals, if Hyundai were to engage in a game of tactical chess at time controls, what would Toyota do in response?

There is, after all, an opportunity to strike back. Neuville starts one car before Evans does tomorrow and Lorenzo Bertelli, in the fourth Yaris, is due to be the car immediately before Neuville on the road tomorrow. Kalle Rovanperä, having crashed out of the lead on Friday, could also opt to wait several minutes to take his turn between Neuville and Evans.

On paper, Toyota is in a position to get one back on their rivals and slow Neuville down. But team principal Jari-Matti Latvala made clear that he has no interest in entertaining such ideas.

“What we have said is that we don’t use tactics, we want a fair game,” said Latvala, reiterating a long-held stance that applies both within its own ranks and against its rivals.

“That is what we believe is the best for everybody and a fair fight. We don’t want to go into tactics.”