Thierry Neuville has gone. He’s in another place. If the zone’s really a thing, that’s where you’ll find him. He’s in the middle Zuidschotestraat, just north of the hamlet of Pijpegale.
And when I say he’s in the middle, I mean he’s literally in the middle of the road. His focus is somewhere on the horizon as he lunges, stretches, wiggles his wrists, waggles his hands and rolls his eyes.
The traffic has slowed to a crawl, as it always does when the start of a World Rally Championship stage is so close. But here the cars are actually having to go around the apparently inert Belgian.
But this isn’t the start of just any stage, this is the start of Belgium’s first ever WRC stage. Neuville had waited a long time for this moment. A long time.
He dreamed. A nation expected. And he delivered.
At last week’s Ypres Rally, the Hyundai Motorsport driver produced one of the most controled and ruthlessly capable drives of his career to win his first ever home round of the World Rally Championship.
In short, Neuville – and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe – were brilliant.
Should they have won? Yes, they should. They had the most experience of roads in both Ypres and down south in Francorchamps. But Neuville’s had rallies in the palm of his hand before, only to drop them or have them snatched from his grasp.
Not this time.
He refused to be ruffled. Not even when Ott Tänak led after stage one, nor when Craig Breen was out front for the next two.
In fact, the only thing that didn’t go to plan was his glasses sliding off his nose coming down the hill in Kemmelberg. Otherwise, he was happy.
“I can go faster,” he said, confidently not cockily. “Everything is under control.”
For the next four stages, he went faster and he went fastest. And directly into the lead. An inspired effort on SS7 and he effectively doubled his lead. The main sail had been hoisted and Neuville was on his way.
“No surprises,” was the leader’s response. “I took the clean line and everything worked.”
When Breen arrived at the finish and he saw that he’d shipped 3.6 seconds in 15 miles, his head dipped slightly.
“I did what I could in there,” Breen said. “He [Neuville] could do more. I know what that feeling’s like, when you can give it an extra turn and find some more pace. If we were going up the [Moll’s] Gap at home, I’d probably be able to do that. I’d be able to find that extra turn and bring more speed. I did what I could.”
Why Breen was never going to win
On Saturday morning, Breen’s head was back up and a brace of fastest times helped him slash the gap to Neuville to just 3.5s. The leader pulled time back on the next two and by the time the pair got to service at lunchtime Saturday, it was clear the talking had been done.
When Neuville started talking about his closest rival being Toyota’s third-placed driver Elfyn Evans, it was quite clear the discussion had been had.
“It was a short one,” Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo told DirtFish. “These are professional guys. We don’t have to talk a lot.”
Much as Breen craved his maiden WRC win, it was never going to come in Belgium last weekend – not as long as Neuville remained in the championship chase and Hyundai had the chance of a 1-2.
Even without the Adamo chat, I don’t think Breen had the pace to edge Neuville. That’s no slight on Craig, I don’t think anybody had the pace to edge Neuville at home.
For the duration of the rally, he was of the same opinion.
Neuville’s complete control
At every turn, at every interview, Neuville talked of confidence and control. It became a mantra, almost like a reminder to himself that he really was the good. And the great.
If that sounds trite or haughty, that’s not how it came across. Neuville’s words were the words of a man on top of his game.
By the time Sunday’s long haul south-east arrived, Neuville was ready for a victory parade through the Ardennes Mountains close to where he’d grown up and gone to school.
A couple of months ago, the #11 i20 Coupe WRC started Sunday’s final day in Kenya comfortably ahead, only for suspension failure to step in and rob the Belgian duo of victory.
It was actually quite emotional when I was going down Eau Rouge, usually you don’t have any time to thinkThierry Neuville
The agony of Africa wasn’t far from both of their minds as they trekked 180 miles south to Spa-Francorchamps.
“Losing that one hurt,” Wydaeghe told DirtFish. “It was really hard to accept. Thierry [has] had more experience with this kind of thing. Being that close to victory, it took me a couple of days to turn the page.”
There would be no turning the page this time. Instead, the pair would use that page to re-write history.
Away from Ypres’ deepest ditches and with only four stages and 24 miles to run on the final day, Sunday might have looked innocuous. It wasn’t. A rock slashing the side of Sébastien Ogier’s left-rear tire demonstrated the jeopardy which lay in wait.
“It was tricky,” admitted Neuville, “but I stayed in the middle of the road. When we came to the final stage, I decided I wanted to take the win and not risk everything for [powerstage] points.
“But anyway, I messed up a little bit the first corner [of the final stage], so I knew it would be difficult to win the stage. So, my thought then was just do a clean run and take care with the risk of punctures. I turned around two or three cuts, which cost me some more time. I wanted to be safe.”
It was only when he neared the end of the stage that he allowed himself to really think about what was about to happen.
“I enjoyed it when I was here, when I was coming towards Eau Rouge,” said Neuville. “Then I knew there was no risk for the puncture.
“When I was coming towards this corner, I could see already that the people were cheering and I was thinking: ‘OK, but there are still 500 meters to go – please keep quiet!’
“It was actually quite emotional when I was going down there; usually you don’t have any time to think. But with this straight, I was thinking to what we were doing. It was nice.”
Neuville’s a fairly cool customer, not a driver known for emotional outbursts. His reaction when he stepped from the car at the finish was as loud as it had been in Kenya.
But this time there were no obscenities. This time it was pure joy. One word, long and loud.
Home rule’s good, but not that good
It might have been his backyard, but competing at home brings both pressure and the potential for a world-class performance. Neuville and Wydaeghe were very much about the latter last week.
But how did this one rate? Surely, winning in front of an adoring home crowd of thousands was right up there? Maybe even the best?
Actually not. Neuville said: “I don’t think it’s the biggest win. I like to win in the places where people don’t expect us to win. I like to win in Sweden, we had some great victories in Sardinia and also in Argentina. They were really tough. Here I was more under control and I was just enjoying it.”
He wasn’t the only one to enjoy it.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Much as I was one of the many hoping to see a maiden Breen win, Thierry and Martijn richly deserved this success. They had the answer for every question asked.
The respect between driver and co-driver is everything in a rally car. When Nicolas Gilsoul walked out on Neuville at the start of this season, Wydaeghe and Neuville were forced to find a way to build that relationship on the hoof. They had to hit 2021 running. They did that, but inevitably there was the odd trip here and there.
When Neuville insisted his co-driver took his winners’ trophy first, that was a special moment. That was Thierry’s moment to demonstrate his huge respect for what the fella sitting on his right shoulder had achieved.
“I’m so proud for Martijn,” he smiled.
Beyond the incredible emotion involved with Belgians winning in Belgium, on a more prosaic level, a big points haul at home also drew them level with Elfyn Evans for second in the championship.
Whether Neuville or Evans can overturn the defending champion’s 38-point advantage is debatable with just four rounds remaining. But Neuville’s first win since Monte Carlo last year not only reminded him of the view from the podium’s top step, but it helped build more momentum off the back of third place in Estonia.
Winning Ypres was deliverance for both him and the whole Hyundai Motorsport squad. Telegraphed or not, they earned it and they totally deserved it.
A great rally like last week’s Ypres Rally deserved a great story and the locals totally delivered on that one.