NEUVILLE’S BACK

TROU­BLED BEL­GIAN DOM­I­NATES RALLY ITALY

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY DAVID EVANS Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Twenty-two days ear­lier Thierry Neuville and Ni­co­las Gil­soul sat and stared at each other. Their Hyundai i20 WRC had coughed. Died. Out of fuel. Fly east and what a dif­fer­ence three weeks and a day make. Once again they stopped and stared. But this time it was as win­ners. On Sun­day, the Bel­gians did a real Ital­ian job.

When Neuville broke his World Rally Cham­pi­onship duck in Ger­many two years ago, it had the look of a hand-me-down win. Trier was nice, but not nec­es­sar­ily earned in the fash­ion he would have wanted.

This time he crafted and con­trolled a vic­tory against a Volk­swa­gen Polo R WRC run­ning in vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal con­di­tions to him. By some con­sid­er­able dis­tance, this was the big­gest win of Neuville’s ca­reer.

Ar­guably, it was the win that saved his ca­reer.

The lack of petrol on the Marao stage of Rally of Por­tu­gal was a low point, but only marginally lower than the pre­vi­ous low point. Which had been pretty low.

Neuville’s win has to be set in con­text against the last 15 months. In that time, he has gone from be­ing on top of the world to pretty much as low as you could go.

Mid-way through day one in Mex­ico last sea­son and he was up there, talk­ing about how he in­tended to fol­low and eclipse Se­bastien Ogier. Then he went off.

From the Leon event for­ward, it went from bad to worse, cul­mi­nat­ing in Hyundai team man­ager Alain Pe­nasse’s breath­tak­ing words to the bewil­dered me­dia in Ger­many last sea­son; iron­i­cally 12 months on from Neuville’s sup­posed break­through win.

Back from the brink

Pe­nasse pulled no punches. He told him he needed to drive faster, to sort him­self and his at­ti­tude out. “We were,” Pe­nasse said at the time, “frank with him and we told him we no longer see the Thierry from the past. Now, to fin­ish fifth, he needs [a car ahead to have] two punc­tures and two peo­ple go­ing off in front of him. He is no longer within the pace of the pack and the most an­noy­ing thing is nei­ther he, his co-driver or his en­tourage has any form of ex­pla­na­tion. We are happy to have Hay­den [Pad­don], be­cause with him driv­ing we are mak­ing progress.” Ouch. Trou­ble is, things didn’t get much bet­ter af­ter that.

With hind­sight, Gil­soul says their time at world cham­pi­onship­win­ning teams Citroen and M-sport in suc­ces­sive 2012 and 2013 sea­sons raised their ex­pec­ta­tions from the fledg­ling Frank­furt-based Korean squad.

“We came from very ef­fi­cient teams with a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence,” Gil­soul said, “and worked well with them. It be­came like nor­mal for us and to then jump in with a fully new team, it was a big step. It took a long time.”

Pe­nasse adds weight to that the­ory. say­ing: “The first year was dif­fi­cult with Thierry. We were build­ing the team and he was im­pa­tient, he wanted to be world cham­pion in a short time. But he knew we didn’t have the en­gine for that, every­thing was new. Then last year we had the de­lay with the new car and he was not happy for that.”

Even when the new car came and test­ing got un­der­way, things still weren’t right. Neuville couldn’t find the bal­ance and plainly it wasn’t love at first sight for him and the New Gen­er­a­tion i20.

And all the time in Neuville’s pe­riph­ery, his team-mate Pad­don’s stock was ris­ing in Alzenau. The Kiwi was happy with the new car and still pro­gress­ing with the old one, com­ing within an ace of win­ning in Sar­dinia 12 months ago. The pair locked horns and, gen­er­ally, all was not well in the team.

Un­der­stand­ably, with the cham­pagne still wet on his race­suit, Neuville wasn’t keen to delve too deeply into the past last Sun­day. The more re­cent past is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. A sil­ver lin­ing was spot­ted among the clouds in Wales last year. He took a wheel off in My­herin, but came back to win the Garthein­iog and Dyfi stages. Just when it looked like things were chang­ing for the bet­ter on that filthy Novem­ber day, he rolled in Dyf­nant.

The de­fence was as im­me­di­ate as it was staunch from his fel­low driv­ers. Who­ever went in there first was hav­ing that ac­ci­dent.

Vin­di­ca­tion. Monte, new year, new car, podium. Light at the end of the tun­nel.

Swe­den: third early on be­fore rear diff fail­ure leaves him in front-wheel drive. Mex­ico wasn’t great; he crashed twice, but in Ar­gentina he was blame­less. The Hyundai stopped on the open­ing day’s Santa Rosa test and six min­utes passed be­fore he could trace a loose elec­tri­cal con­nec­tion.

Stage one in Por­tu­gal and he looked all-in. Back to his ab­so­lute worst: in 17 miles, he’d dropped 32s to Kris Meeke.

At the end of Ponte de Lima, he bab­bled about a lack con­fi­dence. He could scarcely find the words to de­scribe what had just hap­pened.

But he got back on it and found some con­fi­dence, clearly em­bar­rassed by his early ef­fort. And then, nine miles into Marao, every­thing went quiet.

Out of petrol, out of luck and, some felt, al­most out of a job.

A new hope

Su­per­fi­cially, it would have been hard to ar­gue with a de­mo­tion, or worse. But Neuville knew there was more to his year than this. He’d worked hard with the en­gi­neers be­fore Por­tu­gal and had come up with a dif­fer­en­tial and sus­pen­sion set-up to give him more con­fi­dence in the rear of the car. Team prin­ci­pal Michel Nan­dan recog­nised the change. “I think it was com­ing in the last rally last year,” Nan­dan said. “This year, he recog­nised the mis­takes in Mex­ico were his, but he also had some tech­ni­cal prob­lems. Thierry has al­ways been fast, but maybe he’s had some prob­lem to con­trol that speed. He’s worked on that, like he’s worked on his pacenotes and worked on every­thing. He can eval­u­ate the speed more now. It’s true the car is still not how he likes it and we are try­ing to make that bet­ter, but now he also knows how to drive the car fast even when he not com­fort­able in it. He has come to the car and we have brought the car to him. This is com­ing with the con­fi­dence.”

That con­fi­dence was cer­tainly ev­i­dent in Sar­dinia last week­end. From stage seven on­wards, he was never headed. And drove like he’d been win­ning world cham­pi­onship rounds for years.

What was most im­pres­sive was the way he dealt with the pres­sure when the chal­lenge from Jari-matti Lat­vala came. Af­ter the Satur­day morn­ing loop, the Volk­swa­gen man had slashed the gap to 2.9s.

The ser­vice park think­ing was sim­ple: Neuville’s had his fun, but the Finn’s here now. Stand aside.

Lat­vala’s co-driver Mi­ikka Ant­tila, an enor­mously like­able and thor­oughly hon­est chap, ad­mit­ted al­most as much him­self.

“The first stage af­ter lunch,” Ant­tila said, “was the per­fect stage for us. Every­thing was good, there were no big slides, every­thing was clean. We were happy.” And Neuville took 10.8s out of them. The af­ter­noon was where the time was com­ing for the i20. Much as he tried, Neuville sim­ply couldn’t trust the car 100 per cent when the roads were looser and of­fer­ing less grip in the morn­ing. But, once the full field had passed and swept the line clear to of­fer bet­ter trac­tion, he was away.

“I put every­thing into that stage,” said Neuville. “I re­ally pushed hard and it took every­thing to take the time from Jari-matti.”

Not even a sig­nif­i­cant down­pour at the start of the 14th stage could put Neuville off his stride. The di­men­sions of his car, how­ever, had been ex­pected to be a fac­tor.

Sar­dinia’s tight, nar­row, tech­ni­cal roads don’t suit the new Hyundai – the ser­vice park’s long­est World Rally Car.

“In the twisty sec­tions, it’s not as nim­ble as the old car,” said Neuville.

But the en­gine? “Oh, that works,” he replied with a big grin, pat­ting the bon­net which sits above one of the strong­est World Rally Car en­gines in the busi­ness.

Stand­ing star­ing at the Al­ghero sun­set as Satur­day drew to a close, Lat­vala was re­signed to sec­ond. Six­teen sec­onds off P1, clearly the team had talked through the im­por­tance of bring­ing points home to Han­nover. With Pad­don hav­ing crashed one of the Korean point-scor­ers heav­ily on day one, this was a good op­por­tu­nity to open a big­ger man­u­fac­tur­ers’ mar­gin – es­pe­cially with Ogier sit­ting in third, one place ahead of Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.

“Thierry isn’t scor­ing points for Hyundai here,” said Lat­vala, “so his po­si­tion is very dif­fer­ent to mine. I will give it a go, but I can’t take any risks. He can give it every­thing.”

Lat­vala wasn’t bleat­ing. He’d given it a go and been beaten. And he, prob­a­bly more than any­body, knew the po­si­tion Neuville was in.

And when Sun­day came, Neuville was

ready for it. He’d shown the power, now it was about the con­trol.

“I ad­mit,” he said, “I was sur­prised how com­fort­able I felt in the car here, but on the fi­nal day I was re­ally able to con­trol the speed. We had more grip than nor­mal on the first time through the stages, be­cause we were run­ning 12th on the road, so it was a bit cleaner. But still, every­thing felt con­trolled. I think we de­served this. We earned it.” Gil­soul agreed. “We can smile again,” he said. “When you are hav­ing these things: the loose wire, the fuel, the punc­ture, it’s like you are in a night­mare. But I never stopped be­liev­ing. You have to stay strong and I feel this time has brought Thierry, me, our friends and man­age­ment and team all closer and tighter.

“When we crossed the line we said: “Now we have to en­joy it, be­cause we de­serve it.” And if there is any lit­tle bit of nega­tiv­ity left in­side then it has to come out now. Push it away.”

And Pe­nasse? Con­tin­ued on page 26

Ogier said he’d done his best

Neuville and co-driver Ni­co­las Gil­soul fi­nally tasted the cham­pagne again

Jari-matti Lat­vala pushed and col­lected big points

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