Andreas Mikkelsen wasn’t shy of putting his point across last year. The Hyundai exile was about to embark on a Pirelli tire testing program and then eventually seal a rallying return in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
Speaking to DirtFish about his disappointing spell in orange-and-blue, the Norwegian said: “[Over] the last couple of years I’ve been struggling on Tarmac with the Hyundai and getting to grips with that car on Tarmac.
“I think it’s pretty clear that in 2017 I was leading Rally Germany, we finished second in the Citroën and three, four months later I was doing Tarmac again in Spain and I was dead last.
“That proved very much that maybe the Hyundai is not made for me and my driving style, it just didn’t work out. It doesn’t really reflect what kind of driver I was at Hyundai.”
Statements like these need to be taken with a pinch of salt given Mikkelsen was looking to rebuild his reputation. But deeper analysis into his points prove that Mikkelsen was actually onto something.
Sébastien Loeb was once the undisputed king of asphalt in the World Rally Championship, winning every single pure asphalt round of the series from 2005-2010.
But during his two part-seasons in a Hyundai, the best result he could conjure up was fourth. Admittedly, Loeb wasn’t at the same peak of his powers, but he did manage to guide the i20 Coupe WRC to two rostrum finishes on the loose.
Dani Sordo is another interesting example. Once considered an asphalt specialist during his Citroën tenure, he has now well and truly shaken off that tag with more WRC event wins on gravel than on the black stuff.
And while his speed on asphalt is still decent, of the eight podiums Sordo has notched up in an i20 Coupe WRC, five of them were on gravel and three on asphalt.
To put that into further context, in the older-generation i20 WRC, Sordo grabbed four podiums and all of those were on asphalt.
For some reason, drivers – with the exception of Thierry Neuville – seem to struggle to extract everything from the i20 Coupe WRC on asphalt. Worryingly, questions are now surfacing as to whether Ott Tänak is now the latest member of this miserable club.
He’d started practice events, done tests and participated on WRC rallies with several asphalt sections, but Rally Croatia was the 2019 World Rally Champion’s first proper taste of dry asphalt in the i20 Coupe WRC at the highest level.
And his experience was rather forgettable. A distant fourth overall was all the Estonian could muster; a far cry from the rally-winning asphalt pace he displayed with both M-Sport Ford and Toyota in the recent past.
“I’m struggling and it doesn’t feel natural,” was Tänak’s damning verdict to DirtFish.
“I don’t even know if it’s the driving style, or if I’m not used to driving a car like this. I don’t know. But anyway, we’re going to try and work it out and try to find a solution.”
Craig Breen’s asphalt debut with the car in the WRC didn’t go much better either. The main damage was done when he picked up a puncture on the second morning, restricting him to eighth place. But the powerstage aside – where he was second-fastest – Breen’s speed wasn’t where he wanted it to be.
“Obviously to finish the event with a good run on the powerstage is nice, but [we] struggled in some places. obviously getting the puncture 100 meters into the first stage on Saturday morning just completely knocked the wind out of the sails, and it was difficult to perhaps find the rhythm back after that,” he told DirtFish.
“But yeah, every kilometer I drive in the car I do feel that little bit better, that little bit more confident, and ultimately on the powerstage I was able to kind of let myself flow a little bit better and the time was there straight away. So we just need a little bit more kilometers in the car.
“Honestly with the R5 car I can jump in because I’m doing so much driving with it in the last year, the last two years, I can just jump in and out of anyone’s car once I’ve got an idea of the set-up,” Breen added.
Thierry was going with the balls on the dashboard to try to winAndrea Adamo
“I jump in, and it just fits like a glove and I can battle down any little lane and it just feels natural. Whereas this, when you’re just sitting in the car, where your front-right wheel is when you’re inside the narrow roads, it’s not easy when you don’t know the car that well.”
Compare and contrast all of that to Neuville who, were it not for a dodgy team tire call on Saturday morning, could have won the rally. It’s a bit concerning.
Neuville’s post-event to-do list centered mainly on a “problem we already faced in the past where the engine suddenly stalls at slow corners, at low rpm, was difficult to restart basically” as he explained it.
“But that’s racing, and we’re progressing, working hard on every single detail,” he added. “As you can see, the performance was there so that was promising.”
What needs to change then? Does indeed anything need to change? Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo isn’t so sure.
“Let me say there is a clear picture to be seen in my opinion,” he told DirtFish.
“Let’s start from the back. Craig was there doing the job that he was supposed to do, so covering the other two running like crazy and he was doing well, then he has a puncture.
“Once he had a puncture and lost some time I see, and I agree with him, no point to run like stupid to show anyhow that he’s fast. He’s shown he’s a smart guy, and when you lost so much time, to run like this and risk the crash just to show anyhow you are faster is stupid. For what? While the others, like Thierry, were going with the balls on the dashboard to try to win.
“Ott was going very well in my opinion but how can I say [he] was very affected by the tire choice, the wrong tire choice that we did on the first morning with hards and he was penalized. In the loop of the afternoon he was very competitive and the same as the others.
“He tried to catch up with the others but from there he also tried to arrive in the fourth position because he is also another smart guy that can understand that to win the championship you need to finish in the points.
“Honestly I think that the pace Thierry has shown here has just highlighted the fact that the car has shown that it is competitive, so here we lost not because we were not competitive in respect to Toyota. I think we lose because of the management of the race.
“Thierry and the others, Craig in the powerstage, if the car was bad it would not be possible for him to do what he has done. If you extrapolate the things, the things we have done to develop the car, doing Sanremo Rally and things like this has paid off.”
Pushed on whether he was worried or concerned about the pace of Tänak specifically, Adamo instead decided to focus on the costly tire choice that put Neuville at a disadvantage against Toyota drivers Sébastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans.
“I always walk away from a rally where I’m not seeing Hyundai winning worried or concerned,” he said.
“Let me say I am not in the position to do my job as I should do if I will not move away from Croatia concerned because there have been mistakes and these mistakes should not happen in a team that is supposed to fight for the world championship.
“Here, what we have done is a mistake in the procedure or something like this and something as I say we are dragging a bit from 2019. Every time there is a tricky situation we are always a bit more on the wrong side.
Has he swerved the question? Or put the onus on the right thing moving forward? There’s merit to both those theories, but what’s clear is the i20 Coupe WRC is a package that only Neuville seems to be able to maximize on asphalt.
Four drivers have won for Hyundai in the WRC, but only the Belgian has on a sealed surface.
But as Adamo rightly points out, Neuville has been extremely competitive on asphalt and not just on Rally Croatia. Since this era of World Rally Car was introduced in 2017, the Belgian has consistently been at the races and has won a quarter of the asphalt rounds in that period. Only Ogier has more victories with seven wins from 16 events.
So perhaps DirtFish is overthinking this one as the car clearly works, just not in everybody’s hands. And in the case of Tänak and Breen, both are inexperienced with the car in this kind of competition so can be afforded a period of adaptation.
But with more asphalt rallies on this year’s calendar (Ypres, Spain and Japan still to come) than we’ve grown accustomed to recently, the speed on this surface has never been more crucial.
Tänak will need to be on the money in Belgium this August, otherwise he could be at a major disadvantage when the title battle likely goes down to the wire at the final round in Japan.
And who knows, could an uncomfortable asphalt feeling in a Hyundai be enough for Tänak’s signature to be found on a contract in Puuppola or Cockermouth? We’re speculating immensely there, but it can’t necessarily be ruled out…