Top Performer - Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe
It had been almost a year since Thierry Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe last tasted victory, on Rally Spain October last year to be precise. So climbing the top step of the podium in Greece last weekend was described as a "relief".
Neuville has been knocking on the door on several occasions this season, but has often been let down by fragile machinery. That said, driver error while leading in Belgium perhaps robbed him of his best chance of a win prior to last weekend’s success.
In Greece, however, Neuville delivered. The Belgian duo scored more stage wins (five) than anyone else as they led home a history-making maiden 1-2-3 for Hyundai, ahead of Ott Tanak and Dani Sordo. Neuville drove smartly through arguably the roughest gravel stages of the season while his rivals fell by the wayside one by one.
Ultimately the key to victory was his ability to remain only 16.0s adrift of the lead battle after being fourth on the road on Friday. While early leaders Sebastien Loeb and Pierre-Louis Loubet both hit trouble, Neuville was there to capitalise, and despite some overheating issues his i20 N proved to be among the most resilient.
While the victory was eventually secured once Hyundai deployed team orders to safeguard its 1-2-3 finish, Neuville had built up a 25s lead over Tanak before the call was made ahead of the rally's penultimate stage. This was the perfect response from Neuville after the agony of letting a home victory slip from his grasp in Belgium.
The headline-making team orders spat between himself and Ott Tanak could have proved a distraction, but Neuville blocked the internal politics from his mind and duly delivered.
“It has been a tough season so far and to get the victory after a very difficult weekend in Belgium is a relief,” said Neuville. “The most important thing is we have a 1-2-3 for the team - after all these years we finally got it and it's a historical moment for the brand and the team. Everybody has worked hard for this and it's a nice reward.”
There are several drivers worthy of a special mention following their heroics at the Acropolis.
Firstly, Tanak once again outlined his natural talent and unique ability to drive around mechanical issues. On Friday the 2019 world champion was without the use of his hybrid boost, but somehow managed to drop only 31.0s to then-leader Loeb at the end of the day.
Differential issues hampered Tanak on the Saturday, but again the Estonian remained in the fight for the lead battle before the team called off the fight between him and Neuville for the victory on Sunday. Tanak was understandably unhappy with the decision to hold station, being the best-placed driver from the team in the championship standings, and labelled the decision “a shame” to be denied a “fair fight”.
To his credit, he left with the maximum points he could muster by winning the rally-ending powerstage to close to within 53 points of championship leader Kalle Rovanpera, who left the door open after his own struggles in Greece.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo again proved his value too, the Spaniard quietly going about his business to complete Hyundai’s 1-2-3. This was his fifth consecutive podium from the WRC events he has contested, stretching back to last year's Rally Spain.
At the end of last year Pierre-Louis Loubet’s WRC future looked bleak after a disastrous campaign with 2C Competition. That season ended with the Frenchman missing the final two rounds of the season due to a broken hip, sustained after being hit by a road car when crossing a street in Paris.
Thrown a lifeline by M-Sport, the 2019 WRC2 champion appears a different driver in 2022 and in Greece he showed that he could be a real contender in the future. The 25-year-old scored his maiden WRC stage win, and took the lead on Friday before backing that up with a second triumph in the following stage.
Loubet could have been a contender for a podium had he not suffered a puncture on Saturday that dropped him from second to seventh. He went on to lead M-Sport’s charge by equalling his career best finish of fourth.
At 48 years old, nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb remains a force to be reckoned with, and rolled back the years to score four stage wins to lead the rally at the end of Friday. While the Frenchman was aided by an advantageous road position, he showed his pace was genuine on Saturday morning before an alternator failure robbed M-Sport another shot at victory.
Likewise, Craig Breen deserves credit for ending his barren run of results with a credible fifth that could have been upgraded had he not suffered a puncture on Friday.
Finally, the consistent Robert Virves emerged as a driver to keep any eye on in the future after securing the Junior WRC crown by scoring his maiden win in the series.
Team of the Week: Hyundai Motorsport
It is hard to imagine a worse start to a WRC season than the one Hyundai endured at Monte Carlo in January this year. Its severely rushed and under-developed i20 N was both unreliable and lacked speed.
Neuville battled through reliability issues to finish sixth, almost eight minutes adrift. Tanak crashed out, while the team was forced to withdraw Oliver Solberg due to illness from the fumes he had inhaled from inside the cockpit.
Fast forward to September and Hyundai delivered its first ever 1-2-3 to mark not only its best ever result in the WRC, but the first time the marque has won three consecutive rallies. Its fourth win of the season also matched its tally for most wins in a single season. The turnaround, among internal management struggles, is nothing short of incredible.
Hyundai has somehow managed to turn the troublesome i20 N into a genuine challenger to pacesetters Toyota. Few would have predicted that its often-fragile machinery would prove to be the most resilient machine at the Acropolis - Europe’s roughest rally - after Toyota had locked out the top four on the Safari.
Hyundai's 1-2-3 was dampened by a team orders squabble, but it shouldn’t detract from the job undertaken by the team to transform its fortunes after such a woeful start to the season. However, the call not to switch its drivers Neuville and Tanak could prove crucial if it wishes to challenge for a drivers’ and manufacturers’ double, and perhaps hold onto Tanak for 2023.
“What an historical moment for our team and Hyundai, the first time ever that we have scored a triple podium,” said Moncet. “Few would have bet on us at the start of the season but here we are, back.
“Still, we need to push and to use the positive momentum we’ve built up as extra motivation. Thank you to all the people supporting us, and above all to those in our factory. Reliability has proven again to be one of the keys; our car has improved a lot on this side since Monte-Carlo.”
In contrast, it was Toyota’s worst round of the season to date as it struggled for pace and reliability, with Takamoto Katsuta its best finisher in sixth. M-Sport also showed promise but again misfortune and reliability proved its Achilles' heel.
Moments of heartbreak
The Acropolis proved a tough nut to crack, leaving several WRC crews to contemplate what could have been.
After lighting up the timing screens, Loeb had his sights on a fourth career Acropolis win, having become the oldest driver to ever lead a WRC round on Friday. But frantic work to repair an alternator ultimately ended in retirement from the lead on Saturday. Likewise, a puncture for Loubet resulted in double heartbreak for M-Sport after it held a 1-2 on Friday.
Toyota also had its fair share of heartbreak as a fuel pressure issue for Esapekka Lappi dropped the Finn out of second, while Elfyn Evans retired from fourth due to a turbo issue on Sunday.
However, throwing away the chance of a WRC2 class win in front of 64,500 people inside Athens' Olympic stadium during the rally's first stage marked a moment to forget for Andreas Mikkelsen.
Championship leader Kalle Rovanpera can count himself lucky to some extent that sideswiping a tree, like Colin McRae did 20 years ago at the 2002 Acropolis, didn’t result in a more serious accident. The Finn was able to limp back to service and left the rally having salvaged four powerstage points.
Meanwhile, WRC2 driver Chris Ingram was fortunate to escape unscathed from this frightening roll down a mountain side.
Loeb added another record to his lengthy list of World Rally Championship achievements.
The Acropolis is known as the Rally of Gods - and it's easy to see why.