skip to content
Article

Hyundai Team World Champs in WRC for Second Straight Season

2020-12-16

Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team claimed the 2020 WRC manufacturer’s title, which, following its same title in 2019, puts it in a rarefied category of consecutive champions. We reviewed the team’s heroics of the 2020 seasons in its route to glory.

The 2020 WRC season, from the start, was expected to be a title race between the Korean and Japanese manufacturers Hyundai and Toyota; with Citroen putting a halt on its team operations and the M-Sport Ford team receiving limited support from its sponsors, the competition was widely predicted as a two-horse race.

The changes in the driver lineup began with the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team (hereafter the Hyundai Team) when it signed the 2019 season’s driver champion Ott Tanak to complete its powerhouse roster. The Toyota Team filled the gap left by Tanak with Sebastien Ogier, a 36-year old veteran who, if a bit past his prime, still is one of the best drivers out there with six consecutive championships (2013-18) under his belt.

The Hyundai Team added last season’s champion, Ott Tanak, to the existing roster in preparation for the 2020 season.

The team planned to let Tanak and Thierry Neuville take the wheel for all rounds, with the third car being shared by Dani Sordo, Sebastien Loeb, and Craig Breen depending on the circumstances. Neuville was yet without an individual title but was widely recognized as an ace and a champion-in-the-making; Sordo’s penchant for stability always made him a reliable choice; and Breen, an Irishman, had been signed during last season to bolster the roster. 

Meanwhile, the Toyota Team completely revamped its squad―after signing Ogier, it sealed the deal with M-Sport Ford’s Elfyn Evans and the rising rookie Kalle Rovanpera. The torrid pace of the new signings was a sign of the nature of the competition to come. 

R1 Rally Monte Carlo (Jan. 12-26): Neuville’s Opening Upset

The Hyundai Team started on a high note, winning the opening round of the 2020 season.

The season opened in Monte Carlo―where the excited cheers of expectant motorsports fans always signal the arrival of a long-awaited season. Monaco is a small city-state, so outside of the ceremonial start and the award ceremony after, most of the rally occurs in neighboring France and Italy. The cold weather of Monte Carlo in winter makes the asphalt surface hard to grip, not to mention the frequent snow and ice causing dramatic fluctuations in traction.

With Neuville, Tanak, and Loeb manning the cars, the Hyundai Team struck right out of the gate. Neuville won Thursday’s night stage and took the lead, followed by Ogier, Tanak, Evans, and Loeb; on Friday, Toyota’s Evans recorded three consecutive top times and overtook Neuville. Meanwhile, the Hyundai Team was digging a hole for itself. In SS4, Tanak attacked a corner too fast and fell out of the tracks, totaling his car. Ogier and Evans were battling it out for the lead, while Neuville waited for his opportunity in third place. But on Sunday, Neuville took four consecutive top times right from the opening stage and upset them both. It was Neuville’s first career trophy at Monte Carlo. With Loeb coming in sixth, the Hyundai Team took the lead in both driver and manufacturer categories.

R2 Rally Sweden (Feb. 13-16): Tanak’s First Podium Finish since Transfer

In Round 2, Ott Tanak secured his first podium finish since his transfer to add to the team’s momentum.

Rally Sweden is the season’s lone full-snow rally, but climate changes have made the snow scarce the last few years. The 2020 season was no different. The stages had to be truncated, with many parts of the course repeated. In the end, only five stages ended up being used.

The top times for Friday’s four stages were divided by Tanak and Evans, but Evans was in the lead. Saturday’s stages were merely the Friday’s repeat, and Evans won his first victory of the season. Tanak finished second, and Rovanpera finished third. The results marked the first podium finish for Tanak since his transfer to the Hyundai Team. Neuville finished 7th, trailing M-Sport’s Esapeka Lappi by 1.4 seconds; Breen finished seventh. By the end of the second round, Evans and Rovanpera’s double podium finish had propelled the Toyota Team to the top of the manufacturer standings. Evans also overtook Neuville for the lead in the driver championship race.

R3 Rally Mexico (Mar. 12-15): A Round in South America amid the Pandemic

The Hyundai Team suffered a setback in Rally Mexico and entered the pandemic-imposed hiatus with its prospects dim

Round 3 took place across the globe in Mexico. Its 2,700-meter high altitude is infamous for thin air, and the rough, uneven surfaces in scorching high temperatures (with the southern hemisphere being squarely in summer weather at this point) present a particular challenge for the drivers and their rally cars. The Covid-19 pandemic was raising its ugly head in Europe, but in South America, things were still relatively normal. Tanak, Neuville, and Sordo took the wheels for the Hyundai Team. 

Ott Tanak took a commanding lead to start, but a tire puncture pushed him all the way back in the standings to 8th place. Worse, with Rally Mexico’s treacherous courses living up to their notoriety, Sordo and Neuville retired early, leaving only Tanak to represent the team. In SS9, Tanak jumped in the standings to 3rd place, chasing Toyota’s Ogier and M-Sport’s Suninen. And in Saturday’s SS18, he finally overtook Suninen for the runner-up position. But the distance between him and Ogier was 30 seconds, and the pandemic erased the Sunday’s proceedings altogether. Ogier had won, and Rally Mexico was over. Tanak took his consecutive runner-up finish as consolation, as the teams rushed to return home before the international borders and airways closed.

The 2020 WRC Season Enters into a Forced Six-month Hiatus

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting all major sports events into hibernation, the FIA monitored the situation carefully and went to reworking the season calendar. Unlike circuit-based motorsport events, in which holding events without the fans present is feasible, open-road rallies like the WRC inherently struggle to keep the fans from showing up. Moreover, given the need to prevent the spread of the virus and the associated difficulties of quarantine, all schedules had to work within the European continent. Luckily, by early June, the test sanctions were lifted and the teams resumed their respective schedules. The Hyundai Team entered its drivers to small rally events to keep their conditioning afloat.

The updated season calendar had a new name: Estonia. Although the Estonian rally is a part of the Europe Rally Championship (ERC), it is a familiar name for the WRC fans, given that many works teams enter it to practice and test for WRC’s Rally Finland. With Estonia being Tanak’s home ground, the news was more than welcome for the Hyundai Team. By the end of June, Turkey, Germany, Italy, and Japan were still on the list―but most of them were eventually canceled, and Belgium was being discussed as a possible replacement site.

R4 Rally Estonia (Sep. 4-6): Tanak Tops in front of the Home Crowd

Once the season resumed, Ott Tanak won in Estonia to begin the Hyundai Team’s late-season surge.

As one of the three Baltic countries, Estonia is situated in Northern Europe and borders Russia and Finland. Its high-speed stages across the coniferous forests remind one of the courses in Finland. In Saturday’s SS3, Tanak took advantage of his home-field familiarity and took the lead. In SS4, the Hyundai Team were sweeping the podium ranks, with Tanak, Breen, and Neuville absolutely dominating. Though Neuville would eventually retire from a damaged suspension, Tanak and Breen never fazed from their one-two positions.

On Sunday, the Toyota Team was the fastest in general, but not enough to overtake the Hyundai duo. Tanak took the trophy in front of the home crowd, and Breen held off Ogier’s challenge by four seconds and finished second. Ogier was still ahead in the driver championship race. The Toyota Team was likewise still ahead in the manufacturer championship race, but the Hyundai Team had closed the gap to mere five points with the results in Estonia.

R5 Rally Turkey (Sep. 18-20): The Team Survives to a Double-Podium Finish 

The Hyundai Team’s late-season push for consecutive manufacturer’s titles came into focus in Turkey.

Round 5’s Rally Turkey took place in Marmaris, Turkey, where rough and dynamic courses contrast with the stillness of the Aegean Sea. Loeb returned to the wheels for the first time since the hiatus and took the lead from the early going. On Saturday, Neuville was in the lead. On the contrary, Tanak veered off course in SS3 and essentially was removed from competing for the leaderboards. Then, in Sunday’s SS9, Neuville became mired in troubles of his own. 

With many drivers suffering from crashes, punctures, and other troubles, Evans was still solidly on top. Ogier followed, and Neuville was in third place. But near the end, Ogier’s engine troubles sunk him out of the race, and Neuville and Loeb overtook him to finish second and third. This double-podium finish still kept the team’s title aspirations alive. In the driver championship race, Evans overtook Ogier for first place.

R6 Rally Italy (Oct. 8-11): Sordo Puts the Team Back on Top

Dani Sordo’s win in Rally Italy propelled the Hyundai Team to the top of the manufacturer leaderboards.

The Hyundai Team had historically performed well in Italy; with only a few points separating the team from the leading Toyota Team, Rally Italy presented an opportunity that the team had to take. The team started Neuville, Tanak, and last season’s winner of Rally Italy, Dani Sordo. In SS2, Sordo recorded the top time and came within earshot of first-place Suninen. In SS4, he won again and overtook Suninen for the lead. Neuville was following him closely in third. Tanak, however, suffered from a damaged suspension and sank to eighth. For two rallies in a row, fortune had not been kind to Tanak.

Sordo’s torrid pace did not diminish on Saturday either. Meanwhile, Neuville was fiercely battling Ogier for the runner-up position. Beginning the Sunday stages, Sordo and Ogier were separated by a comfortable 27.4 seconds; the rally ended without an upset, and Sordo cemented his legacy in Italy as a consecutive rally winner from the last season. The much more dramatic battle for second place ended with Neuville as the victor. Neuville, who had been in third place until SS15, finished with a dramatic upset in the final stage. Thanks to Sordo and Neuville’s heroics, the Hyundai Team was back on top of the manufacturer’s title race, 7 points ahead of the Toyota Team.

R7 Rally Monza (Dec. 4-6): Hyundai Team Clinches Consecutive Manufacturer’s Titles

The Hyundai Team meticulously prepared for the season’s finale in Monza in many aspects.

With the pandemic taking a turn for the worse in Europe, Rally Belgium was canceled. Stepping in as the season finale was Rally Monza. Monza Rallies are annual show-style events held on a circuit, and it was won by Dani Sordo twice in 2010 and 2013.

The course at Monza incorporates the regular F1 Grand Prix circuit, a seldom-used old oval track, and some neighboring roads that fill out gymkhana-style stages. This year, the FIA added the mountain roads northeast to the tracks to expand it to match the WRC standards. The team buckled up with Neuville, Tanak, and Sordo to clinch the title for good.

Bad weather raged across all three days on the Monza courses that incorporated many different road styles.

During the shakedown test on Wednesday, the temperatures fell below the freezing point, and snow started falling, portending the difficulty of what’s to come. On Dec. 3, Thursday at 2:08 p.m., the Monza Rally opened its gate with the short SS1. On Friday, five stages from SS2 to SS6 followed under the rain. Troubles of all kinds emerged from the start. In SS4, Neuville passed a deep puddle and put his engine out, effectively removing him from the driver championship race. But Sordo was a shining mark, taking SS2 and SS6 to take the lead. In SS6, though, second-place Lappi failed to brake in time and cut a chicane in SS6 against the rules; Sordo had followed him through the same chicane, which resulted in 10-second penalties for both drivers. After the penalty, the difference between the leading Sordo and 5th-place Tanak was a mere 10 seconds.

On Dec. 5, Saturday, the proceedings left the tracks for a moment and entered the mountain ranges. The slippery slopes covered muddy ice and snow were a scene out of Monte Carlo. Accidents abounded, and SS10 and SS12 had to be canceled when the heavy snow came. When Toyota’s Evans retired from an accident in SS11, the race for the championship turned into epic chaos. Toyota’s Ogier was on top for the moment, followed by Hyundai’s Sordo and Tanak. The rally was entering into crunch time, with no one sure of the outcome.

The Hyundai Team drivers persevered through the thick weather and unfamiliar tracks of Monza to secure the team’s manufacturer championship.

On Dec. 6, Sunday, the final three stages from SS14 to SS16 took place in the circuit area―a day to determine it all. Ogier staved off Tanak and Sordo’s pushes and secured first place. But Tanak and Sordo were just trading places for runner-up positions, which meant that the team’s prospects of defending the manufacturer’s title was quite good.

The final stage, SS16, was a repeat of the course in SS15 and doubled as a power stage that would award additional points (5pts~1pt) to first five finishers. In the end, Toyota’s Ogier took the trophy. But the other two spots in the podium were won by Hyundai’s Tanak and Sordo.

With Tanak and Sordo taking the double podium in Rally Monza, the Hyundai Team clinched its consecutive manufacturer’s title.

Which meant that the team’s final point tally―241 points―was five points ahead of the runner-up Toyota Team. The Hyundai Team had secured its second consecutive manufacturer’s crown. It was an achievement to be lauded indeed; in a bumpy season truncated by the pandemic, the team had rebounded from the dismal hiatus to record three consecutive double-podium finishes. The double-podium finish in Monza was a confident declaration of the champion, the best squad in the world at the motorsport’s top flight.

Despite there being only seven rounds, the 2020 season WRC was as thrilling as ever. The ups and downs, the upsets and downturns were commonplace, and the human drama unfolding from them were absolutely magnificent

The rivalry between the Hyundai Team and the Toyota Team for the manufacturer’s crown was a can’t-miss narrative throughout the season. Though the Hyundai Team returned to the competition earlier (2014) than the Toyota Team (2017), the total number of years in the competition is higher for Toyota. Its works team has been in place since late 1980, and its long history has several moments of glory, with four manufacturer’s titles in the trophy case. The Hyundai Team joined the game comparatively late, only establishing its motorsports headquarters in Algenau, Germany, in 2012. But the team did not waste a beat in closing the gap, and it has the two consecutive manufacturer’s crowns to show for it. The world now knows who’s truly world-class.

By Lee Su-Jin, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. 27 years have passed since then, the years of plowing through the writing struggles of an auto journalist. After becoming an editor for 〈Car Vision〉, I came to my current position as the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.