TROUBLED BELGIAN DOMINATES RALLY ITALY
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