Autosport (UK)

FINALLY CAN A HYUNDAI DRIVER WIN THE DRIVERS’ CROWN?

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Kalle Rovanpera’s decision not to contest the full season may have eliminated a title contender, but Thierry Neuville believes that the championsh­ip fight will be just as tough in 2024.

The five-time WRC runner-up will not only face a challenge from Toyota’s Elfyn Evans, but will have to deal with a renewed threat from within the Hyundai team following the return of Ott

Tanak. One aspect that is universal in all forms of motorsport is that drivers always want to beat their team-mates, and on this occasion it will be crucial for his title hopes.

“I mean, the job is still the same and if Kalle is out, Ott will be in for sure,” predicts Neuville. “I’ve always said that when Ott is in the team it was an extra motivation to push. With Ott I have had three years working with him and it has never been a real issue and we have been performing well. I don’t see any issue for the future, especially with the team structure and the management in place.

“I have always been hungry for the title. I have more chance in the upcoming years than I have had in the past, except maybe 2018 when we were very close. We know how to do it.

“We have set up the team as such to take out the maximum, so I think we have better chances this year for sure. But the fight will be tough again. There is no reason why it should be much easier than other years.”

One area that could hinder Hyundai’s charge is the i20 N, which Neuville feels is yet to perform to his liking on asphalt. “There are some points to improve but on gravel we are really close to something very good, but on Tarmac for me it is not how I would like it,” he warns.

There can be no doubting Tanak’s hunger for a second title. It’s the very reason why he’s opted to rejoin Hyundai – he has been convinced that the the

factors that prompted his departure in 2022 with a year remaining on his contract have been resolved. After a challengin­g 2023 at M-sport, the 2019 champion believes that this new-look Hyundai, under the leadership of Cyril Abiteboul and technical director Francois-xavier Demaison, can deliver.

“We had all the people but we didn’t have the structure [in 2022],” says Tanak. “Structure-wise and general approach-wise, a lot has changed. We have a team principal, we have a technical director, and things are starting to take shape. When I left, I gave them the message, ‘If you have this fixed then give me a call and we can work together.’ They have done everything we spoke about. The vision and how to achieve things seems to be quite clear.”

Tanak will once again be in the same machinery as Neuville, fighting for the same outright goal in their intra-team battle. In three years together across 2020-22, Tanak beat Neuville 2-1 in terms of championsh­ip positions. “For sure, there will be some competitio­n and it can get a bit more spicy and interestin­g but previously we were still able to work together,” concludes the Estonian. “It will be quite intense but I’m sure it will work out.”

One of the key storylines will be how Abiteboul can manage his two stars. “When the season starts there will be absolute parity of parts, informatio­n, opportunit­y and contractua­l rights and privilege to both drivers,” states Abiteboul. “We have identified a milestone during the season where we will review the situation and possibly change our internal code of conduct. The drivers are aware of this. There will be conflict, there will be tension and I’m doing everything I can do now [to address this]. I’m not waiting for Monte Carlo or later in the season to discuss our strategy.”

 ?? ?? Return of Tanak to Hyundai has upped the ante for title hopeful Neuville
Return of Tanak to Hyundai has upped the ante for title hopeful Neuville
 ?? ?? Questions remain over the car’s pace on sealed surfaces
Questions remain over the car’s pace on sealed surfaces

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