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Thierry Neuville versus Ott Tänak: Rally stars fight for the WRC title

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Thierry Neuville versus Ott Tänak: Rally stars fight for the WRC title

He can’t hear it anymore: “Pfff,” snorts from the cell phone speaker, “‘now or never’, that’s what they tell me every year.” Since Thierry Neuville was in his mid-20s, he has been considered a future rally world champion. The Belgian will soon be 36 years old, but the prophecy is not fulfilled. “We were close many times,” the Hyundai driver told FAZ. “Last season we could have been on the podium at every rally.”

If there hadn’t been bankruptcies, bad luck and breakdowns with his i20. The turbo failed in Portugal, the shock absorbers failed in Kenya, and the suspension broke in Greece. “That was tough.” Second in the World Championship five times, third three times, beaten each time, that’s how Neuville’s results read after twelve years in the World Championship (WRC). Time is gradually running out.

Victory in Monte Carlo

Even if he doesn’t hear it, there’s a good chance that Neuville, who grew up near the border as a native German speaker, will finally get his master’s degree. Because it was impressive how he recently won the prestigious first rally of the year in his adopted home of Monte Carlo with a courageous drive.

Because Sébastien Ogier, the eight-time champion and influential helmsman of the past decade, against whom Neuville lost four times, is no longer fighting for the crown.

And because Kalle Rovanperä, who most recently dominated the WRC, is not defending his title at the age of 23 and has won two championships: Like his Toyota colleague Ogier, the Finn will be working part-time in 2024 and would rather try out other racing series before he wants to attack again in 2025. So now or never?

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“You need strong teammates”

“Kalle, the strongest driver, is not there, but it will still be a tough fight,” says Neuville before the Rally Sweden begins this Thursday (7 p.m./live stream on ServusTV). The passionate helicopter pilot has identified two rivals that he must outdo.

One is the dogged Welshman Elfyn Evans (Toyota), most recently runner-up in the championship. It will be difficult for him as a lone fighter. Toyota declared the manufacturer title to be their goal. Then there is, and this is explosive, Neuville’s teammate, the brittle Estonian Ott Tänak. In 2019, it was the now 36-year-old who pushed perennial winner Ogier off the throne – ahead of Neuville. He had collected more points than ever before and never again since.

Tänak, barely crowned champion, surprisingly switched to Hyundai. That went wrong: He felt disadvantaged and repeatedly shot publicly against Neuville, who has been in the Korean service since 2014. Tänak, who was considered headstrong, left the team in frustration before the end of his contract and is now back after an interlude at Ford.

Teammate and World Cup rival: Hyundai driver Ott Tänak: Image: EPA

“Back then,” says Neuville, “I was one of the few who tried to persuade Ott to stay. You need strong teammates.” When they both sit next to each other at dinner, they don’t talk about sports, but otherwise they work together “relatively constructively,” says Neuville. But why did Tänak come back?

Because Hyundai, which also speaks for Neuville, is considered stronger than ever. Last year the manufacturer reorganized its WRC project. Former Formula 1 team boss Cyril Abiteboul became race director. The team found peace with the Frenchman, the 46-year-old is leading the way. He also recruited François-Xavier Demaison, one of the bright minds behind Volkswagen’s previous WRC successes, as technical director.

Sönke Sievers Published/Updated: Recommendations: 5 Sönke Sievers, Passau Published/Updated: Recommendations: 1 Sönke Sievers, Passau Published/Updated: Recommendations: 6

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Demaison modified Neuville’s company car: now the tires last longer. Neuville and Tänak will probably fight for the title between themselves. Officially there is no number one. But with his Monte victory, Neuville also made his first mark internally. Tänak came fourth.

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