Is Neuville’s title bid already on its last legs?

by Alasdair Lindsay

Thierry Neuville has faced a rocky road to reach the position of being a genuine championship contender. The beginning of his career was a journeyman affair, jumping from Citroen to Ford, before eventually settling down at Hyundai. He suffered the ignominy of being demoted to the Korean marque’s junior team after a disappointing start to the 2016 season, albeit bouncing back quickly with a win two rallies later. With reigning world champion

With reigning world champion Sebastien Ogier starting the year on the back foot after a forced departure from Volkswagen to M-Sport, the stars seemed to have lined up for a Neuville world championship, and yet, as the half-way point of the championship approaches, the Belgian is 22 points behind the four-time champion. With Neuville failing to capitalise fully on Ogier’s difficult transition period, can he hope to challenge for the title at all when coming from behind?

Neuville’s potential for world championships sits within the context of the current benchmark for performance in the WRC, Ogier. The Frenchman has successfully established himself as the superstar of the post-Loeb era, a driver so talented he forced himself out of a job at Citroen for his refusal to concede an inch to Loeb. The pair’s paths to reach their current situation on the face of it have similarities, and yet could not be further apart.

While the formative years of his career in Belgium and Germany were at the wheel of a Ford, it was also with the PSA Group that Neuville established himself in the WRC. His path to Citroen’s junior team in the premier class was a much tougher one, however, demonstrating plenty of pace but failing to finish all but two events in his sole JWRC campaign. It took a diversion to the now defunct Intercontinental Rally Challenge – where he piloted a factory Peugeot 207 – before getting his break in the same team which gave Ogier his start in the WRC.

Many expected him to succeed Loeb for 2013, but having only been offered a seat-share with the outgoing world champion by Citroen team principal Yves Matton, he elected to follow Nasser Al-Attiyah to Ford, for whom he deputised twice that season. Without the pressure of being a factory junior driver, 2014 would be his breakout season, running rings around the nominated factory entries of Mads Ostberg and Evgeny Novikov.

Those performances were what led to his appointment as Hyundai’s lead driver. The i20 was not the fastest car out of the box, but as it received further development to bring it closer to the Fords and Citroens, the pressure mounted to consistently deliver results. In the early months of 2016, it seemed that pressure had finally become too much to handle.

Credit: Hyundai Motorsport

While Ogier was gallivanting off to his fourth successive championship, Neuville had reached a historic low for his career. With Hayden Paddon clinching his maiden WRC victory, the Kiwi was bumped up to the lead Hyundai car, whilst Neuville saw himself sent to the Hyundai N squad, the team for which drivers not nominated to score manufacturer points would compete for.

“It will not continue like this,” he stated flatly at the time. “It’s no disadvantage to be in the number 20 car. It will give us more freedom and space to push if needed, it’s a bit more relaxed.”

His assessment of the disappointing situation he found himself in, turned out to be entirely accurate. That experience built the foundations of his current title challenge, securing only his second WRC victory after nearly two years of waiting at Rally Italy two events later. For the next round in Poland he was back in the #3 Hyundai, and strung together a run of five consecutive podiums at the end of the season, edging out the second Volkswagen of Andreas Mikkelsen for runners-up honours.

This uptick in form came at exactly the right moment for Neuville, as Ogier was suddenly in crisis. With the diesel emissions scandal causing Volkswagen to pull the plug on their all-conquering WRC programme, suddenly Hyundai were left as the form team in the WRC. Ogier hurriedly acquired a seat at M-Sport after a deal for Martin Prokop’s Jipocar team to run the 2017 specification VW Polo R fell through, and the seemingly untouchable Frenchman was unexpectedly on the back foot.

Going into this year, the Belgian had inherited championship favourite status. The new generation Hyundai looked solid in testing, and was able to develop the car in his preferred direction. The main championship protagonists from recent years had no such advantage; Ogier being dropped into M-Sport at the last minute, and Jari-Matti Latvala only managing a couple of weeks of testing with the brand new Toyota squad. The stage was set for a title showdown between Thierry Neuville and Kris Meeke, now Citroen’s main man, whose team was the other manufacturer to put in a strong showing in pre-season testing.

Straight out of the blocks in Monte Carlo, Neuville demonstrated he was the man to beat. He found himself in a class of his own, winning stage after stage while Ogier put his Fiesta in a ditch, then understeered off into a field, and made it a trifecta by clattering into a bank. It seemed the dynamic of the championship had swung away from the Frenchman and towards Neuville after years of years of being the shadows.

Credit: Hyundai Motorsport

A drainage culvert on the tarmac’s edge in SS13 unravelled everything he had built up in the previous nine months.

Neuville’s safety crew had forewarned him and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul about said culvert, located on the outside of a fast left midway through the stage, but he kicked the rear of his i20 out and broke the right rear suspension with it regardless. His 51 second lead over the ragged Ogier was wiped away in an instant.

“Even Sebastien Ogier went off twice, but he had more luck than us,” he said afterwards. “But that’s part of the rally, to be honest. We have been lucky ourselves in the past, just not this time when we really deserved it.”

While the mechanical damage to the Hyundai was all patched up in time for Sweden, the psychological damage was not. The cold, icy conditions were somewhat similar to the treacherous mountain roads of Southern France in which the Monte is held, and similar too was the outcome of the rally. A comfortable gap had been built over Jari-Matti Latvala by the closing stages of the second day once again, but he took entirely the wrong leaf out of

A comfortable gap had been built over Jari-Matti Latvala by the closing stages of the second day once again, but he took entirely the wrong leaf out of the Finn’s book. If there is one moment from his rival’s highlight reel he needed to avoid, it was Poland 2009.

In Latvala’s case, it was an Armco barrier, and a second place wasted away. For Neuville, a stack of tyres in the Karlstad superspecial test once again eliminated him from contention, blowing two likely wins in a row. While the newly rejuvenated Toyota driver went on to take the marque’s first win since 1999, Neuville was shell-shocked by his own actions.

“Oh no! Oh f*ck! What was that? It’s not possible!” he exclaimed, with both his car and his spirits broken. He was a little more reflective once the emotions of a sudden retirement had subsided, but the message was largely the same as previous near-misses.

“After Monte we could not believe it has happened again, but what can we do? I think we were doing a perfect job, Nicolas [Gilsoul] and me, and I have no regrets on that side, but at the end we missed out on luck.”

Credit: Hyundai Motorsport

Luck appears to be a recurring theme, and yet despite his suggestion his luck deserted him on these occasions, luck had actually been on his side. The opening five rounds of the season were most of the luck he was going to get this year. Sebastien Ogier being on the back foot is such a rarity, and opportunity that must be capitalised on. For five rounds, the title favourite was on the back foot, lost at sea with a car he couldn’t figure out how to set-up to his liking. Rally Portugal demonstrated those teething problems had finally been put behind him. The hole in his title defence has been patched up.

Having been presented with the closest thing to an open goal one could probably hope for with Ogier, Neuville missed the opportunity entirely. The margins from this point forward between the two will be finer than before, and so his best opportunity for a world title may have already gone past him.

When Neuville alludes to the need for more luck, he has the right idea in mind. He has a championship rival for whom it took two punctures and an engine failure in Catalunya back in 2011 to stop him from challenging the greatest rally driver of all time – at least statistically – for a world title. Given Ogier’s imperious form the moment he had cracked the enigma of his Fiesta’s setup, it will take a healthy dose of luck – perhaps in the form of a drainage culvert or stack of tyres standing in the way of Ogier – to close that 22 point gap and take a debut world title ahead of the defining talent of the post-Loeb era.

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