This World Rally Championship season is becoming utterly breathtaking. And there was no better example than last weekend’s Acropolis Rally.
Friday was seamless, Saturday was chaos and Sunday was deeply political. What more could you ask for from a round of the WRC?
History was ultimately made as Hyundai scored its first ever 1-2-3 in WRC history, and it was offered a glimmer of hope in both title races as its main rivals in each, Toyota and Kalle Rovanperä, were nowhere.
But in reality there was more to this one than that. So without further ado, here’s what we learned from the Acropolis Rally 2022:
Hyundai is well and truly back
Forget the narrative about problems at Hyundai. Forget it. Erase it. From a rally performance perspective, it simply doesn’t exist any longer.
M-Sport Ford put in a good showing, but Hyundai was a clear number one in Greece.
First, second and third overall, no mechanical problems to speak of, and fastest on every single stage from Saturday morning onwards, this was the most dominant Hyundai has ever been as it also scooped its third win in succession for the first time ever.
It’s a massive turnaround, even from last month’s Ypres Rally Belgium where, yes, the i20 N Rally1 was a winner but Tänak had to hustle it to extract all of the car’s performance. In Greece, the drivers were comfortable for likely the first time all season and it showed.
It may be a bit too late to rescue the season in terms of championship success. Although both Tänak in the drivers’ race and Hyundai in the manufacturers’ stakes made great ground on Rovanperä and Toyota, Toyota’s lead is still 63 points and Rovanperä’s a similarly useful 53.
But the fact Hyundai has transformed itself in such a short space of time, with such limited testing, is a massive credit to the entire organization. It really has to be considered a massively positive weekend.
Well, for the most part…
Hyundai’s drivers are at war
The post-event press narrative from Hyundai (and its drivers facing the media) was extremely positive, toasting a fantastic team achievement and a job well done. And why wouldn’t it be? Happy days.
But the reality stopped a little short of that. Just an hour or so earlier, Neuville and Tänak were again at war with each other in the media as they gave their opposing views on Hyundai president Sean Kim’s team order to ensure Neuville finished ahead of Tänak.
Tänak would dearly have loved to have finished ahead of his team-mate as that would have given him an extra seven championship points, further reducing his deficit to Rovanperä in the standings. Neuville, while still a mathematical contender, has far longer odds of winning the title.
But Neuville had position on the rally, and with such an historic result on the line, management intervened and went the other way – asking the drivers to protect what they had.
You sense that Tänak may have been less obedient had that call came from deputy team director Julien Moncet – who he very publicly declared wasn’t the right man to lead the team after winning in Ypres – but he toed the party line, and didn’t take the shine off Hyundai and Neuville’s moment. Hyundai got its great PR.
But you don’t need to be a genius to work out that the team meetings could be a lot more frosty in the next few weeks. This was the second rally on the trot where Hyundai’s leading lights have fallen out publicly, and that wedge between Neuville and Tänak will only grow as Hyundai’s performances keep improving on the stages.
Toyota’s Yaris doesn’t like low grip rallies
Although Toyota and Rovanperä cleaned up in Greece 12 months earlier, a repeat result in 2022 was always going to be difficult with Rovanperä starting first on the road on Friday where just one of the six stages was repeated.
That handicap was only exaggerated further when every single Rally1 car made it through the leg, leaving Rovanperä languishing in ninth.
The championship leader then made his second key error in as many rallies, running wide and rearranging the rear of his Yaris to the point where it closer resembled a dune buggy than a Rally1 car. But it would’ve been a trying event for this year’s class act even without these issues.
All four Toyota drivers were unhappy on the Acropolis – and Rovanperä was particularly vocal about it, saying it was “the first time I have a feeling that this car is not fast enough”, citing a lack of grip as a key problem. And that was after just Thursday’s shakedown stage.
Takamoto Katsuta protected his points-scoring run but he had a wretched weekend by his recently high standards, while both Esapekka Lappi and Elfyn Evans were in a similar boat feeling-wise but never made the end due to reliability problems.
Should we be too surprised? Maybe not when we think back to Sardinia and the more difficult weekend Toyota experienced in the Mediterranean, but there both Evans and Lappi took shots in the lead. In Greece, that just never looked remotely likely.
Jari-Matti Latvala openly admitted this was the toughest weekend he’s had since taking up the team principal role last year. He’s had a very good run of it, so this was bound to happen at some stage.
But a good performance in New Zealand, and this is all forgotten. Toyota may not have the momentum but it still has the championship initiative and that’s what counts most.
Loubet really could be the real deal
Croatia was a real false start for Pierre-Louis Loubet’s M-Sport career, as ever since his troubled rally then he’s been quietly impressive. But there was nothing quiet about Loubet’s performance on the Acropolis – winning two stages and leading the rally on Friday.
When you remember that last year’s trip to Greece turned out to be an early end to his miserable campaign in a 2C Hyundai as he was destined to be hit by a traffic car in Paris, this really was the most remarkable statement that illustrated how far Loubet has come.
A year ago he was considering jacking it all in and going back to work in his mother’s restaurant in Corsica, and yet here he was leading the most successful driver in WRC history, Sébastien Loeb. And this was no fluke.
Yes, Loubet had the best road position, but Loeb was only just ahead of him. And Loubet’s driving was fantastically measured – quick, but not over the limit.
Unfortunately, on the self-titled Rally of Gods, the rally gods had cruel plans for Loubet as a puncture on Saturday morning ruined his chances of a maiden podium finish. But it really is saying something that a career-best-equaling fourth can be considered disappointing for Loubet.
And who knows what it could all mean going forwards. On a weekend where Adrien Fourmaux was out of action due to his crash on the previous round in Ypres, for Loubet to turn in a 2021-spec Fourmaux performance probably wasn’t ideal for Adrien’s reputation.
Breen might finally be back on track
Further along the M-Sport service tent, while the rest of the team was pumped up and smiling after a stunning opening day in which it was first and second with Loeb and Loubet, Craig Breen sat there, licking his wounds.
Breen’s long been an emotional character, but it’s difficult to recall a time where he’s been quite as dejected as he was on Friday evening. On a day where all of his rivals had avoided trouble, Breen punctured after keeping his Puma slap bang in the middle of the road.
It was yet another kick in the privates for Breen to deal with, off the back of three events that were supposed to be his strongest but turned out to be his weakest.
Malcolm Wilson’s advice? Knuckle down and get on with it.
And to his credit, that’s exactly what Breen did.
Saturday was a new day and while there was still obvious frustration about what had happened on Friday – made even more painful by the potential both Breen and the Puma clearly had in Greece – Breen quietly went about his business and ended up rescuing a top-five result from the weekend.
Celebrating fifths isn’t what Breen, or M-Sport, are about, but in recent context this was basically a championship title. Breen heads home from Greece in a more positive mindset than he has for months.
He now just needs to use it as a springboard for New Zealand, the rest of the season and ultimately 2023 where hopefully he can truly deliver on his undoubted potential.
Another Mikkelsen WRC2 title is massively unlikely
On balance, Andreas Mikkelsen has been the best driver in WRC2 this year. He’s certainly been the fastest. But the chances of him ending the year with another trophy in the cabinet now look desperately slim.
With his biggest title threat being Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Mikkelsen really needed a win to pile the pressure on the triple European champion for when his program resumes from New Zealand onwards. But instead, Mikkelsen could only manage seventh place.
You’ll often hear the adage thrown around that you can’t win rallies on superspecials but you can lose them. Mikkelsen may have gone one step further and lost himself a championship when he overcooked the first corner of the Olympic Stadium stage and smacked the barriers, severely damaging his steering.
But, in all fairness, the recovery was deeply impressive. Carrying a 10-minute penalty for retiring from SS1, Mikkelsen refused to give up and eventually finished 7m53.8s down on winner Emil Lindholm – and quickest on the powerstage by over six seconds.
However, Mikkelsen is already bound to carry a big fat zero due to consecutive engine-related DNFs earlier in the season, so his nine-point haul from Greece may have doomed his season.
Kajetanowicz is 33 points behind Mikkelsen, but has three opportunities to reduce that deficit. The ball is very much in his court.
But if Lindholm can find the budget to contest Rally Japan, he can’t be discounted either after his second (quite excellent) victory of the season. He took a giant step towards the WRC2 Junior crown too as Chris Ingram rolled down a ravine several times.
Acropolis’ rough nature lives on
Was everyone duped last year by the wild rain and messy stage conditions? Did that trick us into believing that maybe the Acropolis isn’t quite the rough, tough beast it once was?
Possibly. 2022 certainly sent that viewpoint straight into the trash can, anyway.
Breen’s puncture aside, Friday was a drama-free day – not just surprising for the Acropolis but for any WRC round where there’s usually at least one crash or retirement to report. Instead, it was Saturday – the day the drivers had said was much smoother than Friday – that delivered the chaos befitting of Acropolis Rallies of old.
DirtFish’s videographer Eliot Barnard titled Saturday’s end-of-day review video a ‘rally car graveyard’ and that’s exactly what it was.
Loubet punctured, Loeb was stopped with a broken alternator, Gus Greensmith halted by an engine issue, Jourdan Serderidis sidelined by a faulty hybrid unit, Rovanperä caught out by a corner and lured into a tree which whacked his rear-left wheel out of alignment, and Lappi slowed by a fuel-delivery issue.
And then, on the final day, Evans didn’t even make the first stage of the loop as his engine lost all power. Chaos.
The WRC needs these sorts of rallies. It’s brilliant – and a relief – to see that the Acropolis still fits the mold.