Home advantage is a much rarer concept in motorsport than other forms of competition. When it comes to circuit racing, it often comes with the added pressure of expectation, but with none of the supposed advantages of local knowledge.
The World Rally Championship is an unusual exception. Toyota demonstrated what home advantage can do for a team which earmarks its own turf for a run at victory. Without an electrical failure for Jari-Matti Latvala, and a late charge from Elfyn Evans, the recent rally returnees were on the brink of a podium lock-out at Rally Finland last month. They certainly had the pace to achieve it.
This is a key asset for Thierry Neuville and his Hyundai team in the quest to hold Sébastien Ogier at bay during this weekend’s Rally Deutschland.
The Frenchman was the first driver to break compatriot Sébastien Loeb‘s stranglehold on the German round of the championship, and won the previous two editions of the event whilst at Volkswagen. Ogier may well feel at home on the asphalt roads of Germany, but Hyundai are at home.
With their Alzenau base a little under two hours away, the Korean marque have undergone a rigorous testing programme on the tricky and variable sealed surfaces the rally is famous for. Between the slippery concrete roads of the Baumholder region and the patchy, abrasive country lanes, Hyundai have clocked up plenty of miles on everything Rally Deutschland has to offer.
It comes as little surprise that the manufacturer’s first WRC win came here three years ago, and the familiar surroundings will be of great comfort to the German-based team.
“Germany is usually a really good event for us, as a crew and as a team,” said Neuville. “We have great experience and memories from there, particularly from our first WRC win in 2014 with Hyundai Motorsport.
“Heading into this year’s edition leading the Championship is something new, but I am really looking forward to opening the road. It won’t be easy, but we know we can be fighting at the front.”
Aside from the title contenders, a driver who may spoil the party for the title protagonists is Kris Meeke. Their fatally flawed suspension system is far less of an issue on sealed surfaces, demonstrated by the Northern Irishman’s pace in Corsica. Having been benched for Poland, Meeke will be determined to show he is still a formidable force in the championship – one capable of victories – and Germany is his last chance this season to compete on near equal terms with rival teams.
“In preparation for this rally, we set up one of the most intense testing sessions in the history of Citroën Racing,” explained team principal Yves Matton. “On the first six days, the appointed drivers were able to drive on the three types of surface encountered during the race.
“Everything appears to be following on consistently after the Tour de Corse, where we showed how competitive the C3 WRC is on tarmac.
“As has often been the case this season, the race is bound to be very tight. We aim to be among the frontrunners but it’s difficult to make any predictions, especially as the weather is likely to significantly influence the way that the race plays out.”
Meeke will have to dig deep and remember the positives of Corsica, while putting Finland to the back of his mind. Returning from a demotion at the championship’s fastest rally – one that requires an abundance of confidence heading into the event – was unsurprisingly a disaster, leaving him off the pace of team-mate Craig Breen all weekend. Both driver and team are counting on this weekend being the turning point.
“At the Tour de Corse, we saw the C3 WRC’s potential on tarmac,” said Meeke. “Germany is a different challenge, but I’ve got that same great feeling I had during testing.”
If he can rediscover his early-season mojo, Hyundai may find their homecoming party gatecrashed.