Why Neuville’s right to be so slow in Estonia

It's unlike Thierry Neuville to be so far off the pace, but he's a man with a plan


You don’t have to be a genius to see that Thierry Neuville isn’t at the top of his game in Estonia. It’s unlike the Hyundai driver to be so far off the leading pack, but that’s exactly where he’s at right now.

Usually, Neuville is the tenacious bulldog. He refuses to give up, even when the chips are against him.

Think back to Croatia earlier this year. Two penalties later, he nearly had his Hyundai i20N Rally1 on its side on the final stage, and yet still managed to grind out a podium result.

He’s always there or thereabouts. Always just about in with a shout, even if everything isn’t going his way.

But at the end of Friday, after just nine stages, Neuville was rooted in fifth position, 1m12.9s off rally leader Kalle Rovanperä.

That’s a tall order to recover, and it’s not as if there’s any penalty times at play affecting the result. This is pure pace.

Well it is, but it also isn’t.

Neuville hasn’t hidden the fact that Rally Estonia is an event he struggles with. He’s never felt overly comfortable hurtling around these high speed stages.

And after completing his shakedown runs on Thursday, he immediately ruled himself out of the rally victory, stating that rounding out the top three is likely his best hopes for a result.

Early into Friday, it was clear that Neuville was no match for the Toyota of Rovanperä and team-mate Ott Tänak, as expected. And to compound matters further, Elfyn Evans shot out of the gate like a bat out of hell.


But it wasn’t totally the case that Neuville was lost for pace. Yes he wasn’t fully at-one with his machine, but even if he was he was deliberately slow in places.

He’s playing the long game. He’s gone tactical, knowing that anything can happen, especially with rain playing a part this weekend.

“It’s different sections of the stage where you obviously drop a bit of speed,” Neuville explained to DirtFish when asked where he was losing time.

“We had some very good splits on some of the stages, but you never go as hard as you usually could go.

“It’s especially when it’s narrow and fast.

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“I do not like to put my rear wheels in the ditch when I don’t know what’s inside. I kept out of the ditches today and so far we kept out of trouble.

“I’m going to try to have another clean day tomorrow and see what’s happening. It’s a tricky day here; the weather is interesting, so let’s see.”

It’s a clever tactic. By refusing to push to the limit, Neuville is losing ground on his rivals, but with weather already playing a part, he’s also proving why it’s such a smart approach to have.

On a reasonably dry SS6, Neuville ended up sixth fastest, 17.9s down on Elfyn Evans’ effort. The following two stages he was fifth fastest, on average, losing 9.85s to the stage winner.

But on the ninth stage, Friday’s final stage of the day, things were different.

The rain began to descend, the water droplets hit the Estonian mud hard, causing a multitude of issues for the drivers.

Rovanperä got lucky, missing a large portion of the rain to set the fastest time, but Neuville didn’t. Yet despite that, he was second fastest to the Toyota driver, losing 14s to the championship leader, but gaining 6.3s on Esapekka Lappi and 8.4s on Elfyn Evans.

Neuville’s strategy paid off. The slower approach was the faster one, allowing him to avoid the dangers that some of his rivals, including Gus Greensmith, Pierre-Louis Loubet and Lappi all fell into.

They all ran off the road after a jump on that final stage, pushing too hard to make up time. In the end, it was those drivers pushing to the extreme that lost out.


And with the rain showers set to continue into the weekend, the Hyundai driver is well aware that everything is still to play for.

“Ah, I’m not sure that anybody can win this rally!” he said. “But we don’t know yet who will win this rally, that’s for sure.

“We are gonna be right behind and try to catch a place on the podium.”

The timesheets definitely suggests that Neuville’s new approach isn’t really working this weekend. But with so much still to play for, and the promise of more precipitation, it could still turn out to be his wisest move yet.

Words:Rob Hansford