There was a point during last year’s World Rally Championship when it appeared as if Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul were finally going to break Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia’s run of titles.
It came to a spectacular head come the final stage of Rally Sardinia, when Neuville overcame Ogier during the final stage to win by just 0.7s. Neuville, so confident in his resplendent Hyundai i20 WRC machine, drew a twenty-seven-point lead and was beginning to make such circumstances look easy.
Behind the leading pair, after some small errors, misfortune and unreliability, Toyota’s Ott Tänak had dropped 72 behind the leading Neuville. No way back surely…
Fast forward five months and in his final rally at the wheel of his Ford-powered M-Sport contender and Ogier and co-driver Ingrassia were celebrating title number six.
Neuville’s rally had ended prematurely, as at Hyundai heads had dropped somewhat, just as they had in Finland (9th), Turkey (16th) and Spain (4th), where a podium was lost on the final stage. A retirement on the final day in Australia merely rubbed salt into what was already a wounded weekend. Indeed, a solitary 2nd place – coming in Germany during mid-August – would prove to be the Belgian’s sole visit to the podium in the latter half of the season.
At times, Neuville made his i20 sing on the stages, but too often following Sardinia mistakes and a difficult road position got the better of him. Had he lost his lead in one-foul swoop because of an accident, that would have been one thing, but the reality was far more demoralising. Neuville’s lead was whittled down gradually over five gruelling months, piece-by-piece, point-by-point until Ogier edged ahead at the penultimate round. By year end, Neuville had fallen eighteen points adrift of a triumphant Ogier.
The gap between the leading two might have been greater had it not been for Tänak’s near dominant form through the Finland-Germany-Turkey events, that brought stoic Estonian into the title fight late on. He was also leading with ease during both Wales Rally GB and Rally Spain when a couple of mistakes coupled with a rather frail Toyota Yaris dropped him down the order.
Ogier seizing the day ensured Neuville took the runner-up spot in the championship for the third year in a row and the fourth time in six years. It is a statistic that will gnaw at him, but also kicks life into the questions as to whether he truly has the strength to beat Ogier over a whole season, rather than a portion of year.
Whatever the final result, the three-way battle for ultimate rallying honours marked 2018 a standout year for the championship, helped too by the introduction of WRC All-Live format.
Rally Australia does not actually seem that long ago. The season ended in mid-November, just a week before Formula One wrapped things up for the year, but whereas F1 will wait until March before that revs up once again, the WRC hits the roads in a few days having launched at the Autosport International Show at the NEC in Birmingham last week.
There are expectations that this year could produce a repeat of 2018, and while it might to a degree, I cannot help but feel that the field may spread slightly once again, although that is not to say there will be a repeat champion, nor does it forecast an easy run to the crown.
While his efforts to overhaul Ogier were valiant last year, it is possible that Neuville may have missed his best opportunity to take the WRC crown, but situations change.
The Frenchman has moved back to Citroën and where that settling-in period and a tricky C3 could hamper Ogier’s immediate challenge. However the oft-criticised C3 was still a winner in 2018, albeit at the hands of the legendary Sebastien Loeb, himself on the move following a decision to take a part-time season with Hyundai.
Over at Toyota, Tänak will need no such bedding-in period. In his first year with the Japanese manufacturer, Tänak showed plenty of pace in the early part of last season, taking an impressive win in Argentina, despite an early mistake in the event. However, while the Yaris was designed with a nimble, but delicate front end – particularly the around suspension system – it failed too often from seemingly minor hits and bumps, costing the Tänak / Toyota pairing victories and points.
Looking at the form over the course of 2018, it is not unreasonable to think that Tänak could have taken the title with a reasonably handsome margin had some silly errors and repeated mechanical failures not got in the way.
But Toyota are constantly improving, and in the second half of 2018, it was clearly the fastest car. If they continue to strengthen the front-end of the Yaris, while maintaining its nimble response and without adding undue weight and shifting the weight distribution significantly, then it could place the Estonian in an enviable position come Australia this November.
Tänak is maturing as a driver. The fast, but crash-prone driver of 2011-2015 has had the rougher edges smoothed down and now the 31-year-old is looking more like a driver who can take the challenge to Ogier and maybe jump ahead of Neuville in the process.
Alongside their driver, the Toyota team continues to mature, and this could prove problematic for Neuville and Hyundai, particularly if the former’s resources outstrip that of the latter. If Ogier and Citroën gel, could he prove a potent mixture in the fight too..?
These are all questions that must wait and while there is little doubt that we will see this trio fighting it out again, I have a niggling feeling that maybe Neuville’s best chance for the WRC title may have just passed him by.