There have been four contenders for the World Rally Championship title this season. Five if you include Sébastien Ogier who, certainly at the beginning, has been in the mix despite not completing a full program.
Of those four, only one has the full and undivided support of their team which has been prepared to sacrifice their team-mates in order to boost their cause in the drivers’ championship.
Ironically, the Hyundai driver is the only of the five (including Ogier) who hasn’t ever topped the table this season. But finally grabbing that elusive first title has been Neuville’s mission through 2023, and he’s constantly been in the fight.
After Rally México he was the highest placed of the full-time drivers behind surprise leader Ogier thanks to three podiums on the first three rounds, but back-to-back disappointments in Croatia (crashing from the lead) and Portugal (exhaust trouble dropping him from a likely second to fifth) took the sting out of his challenge.
Neuville’s exclusion from Safari Rally Kenya didn’t help either!
So despite two strong second place finishes in Estonia and Finland – two fast rallies Neuville wasn’t expected to score particularly strongly on – he finds himself 36 points down on championship leader Kalle Rovanperä with four rounds left to go.
But Neuville, and the other driver ahead of him in the championship Elfyn Evans, were handed a gift last time out in Finland. Rovanperä crashed.
That doesn’t happen very often, so when it does his rivals better pounce.
Unfortunately for Neuville, it was Evans who fully capitalized as he took the rally win and all five powerstage points. Neuville was second-best on both counts.
“Sometimes there wasn’t that much in there, but he was always a little bit quicker, a little bit quicker to increase his gap,” Neuville reflected.
“It felt like there was no chances for us to really keep on going and at some point we had to settle for second which I think was the clever choice, to at some point just try to get through on a good rhythm, being just behind in case of a spin, a puncture, a problem or whatever.
“And that was our main target I would say from Saturday afternoon onwards with still in our minds strong points from the powerstage.
“But then again Elfyn hit hard and took the maximum of points!”
Neuville’s following sentence was, however, more intriguing.
“But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, either,” he said.
A curious statement from somebody who just lost ground in the championship. You wouldn’t think Neuville would be supporting Evans. But he’s not.
Neuville’s been in this game long enough to know that anybody putting the championship leader under pressure is a good thing. If Neuville had beaten Evans on the powerstage, Rovanperä’s championship advantage wouldn’t be as low as 25.
“Obviously I stay third on the road in Greece so that’s a good thing,” Neuville explained. “But also Elfyn getting as close as possible to Kalle is going to put a bit of pressure on Kalle as well.
“And who knows who might benefit from it…”