This year’s WRC had a total of 14 rounds, with the Rally Australia on November 14th-17th scheduled as the last one. But an unexpected variable came in the form of natural disaster—Australia’s New South Wales Province declared a state of emergency following a dire forest fire, and the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), after discussing the matters with the provincial government, cancelled the Rally Australia on November 12th. With the WRC therefore coming to a close after 13 rounds, the Hyundai Team, who had been in the first place with 380 manufacturer points, was crowned as champions.
Longtime rival Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team remained in second place, trailing the Hyundai Team by 18 points, though its ace driver Ott Tanak did win the driver championship after the Rally Spain. Hyundai’s own Thierry Neuville ended the season in second place in the driver championship. We look back at the WRC’s critical and noteworthy moments in celebration of the Hyundai Team’s victory.
Changes in the 2019 WRC
Entering the year 2018, Chile and Japan battled till the very end for the rights to host a WRC rally. Chile was chosen, and the 2019 WRC was expanded to include 14 rallies. To minimize the additional costs for the manufacturers, the test period allowed to each manufacturer was reduced from 55 days to 42. Maximum driving distance in a competition was also reduced from 500 kilometers to 350. Courses were adjusted accordingly: for example, the first round’s Monte Carlo course had to reconfigure over 40% of the course.
Hyundai World Rally Team’s New Manager
The team began the year with a new manager in Andrea Adamo. Succeeding Michel Nandan, who had been at the helm for six years, he had to juggle his time in being responsible for managerial duties in addition to his existing duties at Hyundai Motorsports, R5(Rally car) and TCR racecar sales. He decided to become a motorsports engineer at age 14, and joined Hyundai in 2015 after having worked for Fiat and Honda.
Hyundai World Rally Team’s Drivers
The Hyundai team began the season with the incumbents Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo, and the newly recruited Sebastien Loeb, whose legendary resume boasts 79 rally championships and 9 consecutive WRC titles. His course analysis and communication skills, all products of his extensive experience, instilled quite a bit of confidence to the team this season.
Round 1: Monte Carlo (Jan. 24-27)
Monte Carlo is the oldest rally in the WRC: it began in 1911 and has reached its 87th rally this year. It annually marks the opening of the competition and provides the first glimpse into the teams, drivers, and vehicles’ status. The course is paved tarmac(asphalt), but intermittent occurrences of snow and ice requires careful selection of tires. In whole, the rally is often called the most unpredictable.
It was particularly unpredictable this year in that more than 40% of the course was reconfigured due to the introduction of new rules. The Hyundai Team’s Thierry Neuville, despite the unexpected safety-related cancellation of the Special Stage(SS) 3 on the second day, rose to first place, but eventually lost the lead to the defending champ Sebastien Ogier. Meanwhile, Sebastien Loeb made up the distance he lost in his early rusty start, closing in on the leading group.
On the final day of the Rally Monte Carlo, Thierry Neuville came within a mere 0.4 seconds to the leader Ogier with just the final stage left, driving his way into a possible upset. But Ogier finished 1.8 seconds ahead of Neuville, ending such hopes. Neuville finished second, and Loeb, who had been a stable presence in the leading group, finished fourth. The team thus began the season opener with a flourish, with its 40 points being the most among the manufacturers.
Round 2: Sweden (Feb. 14-17)
Rally Sweden takes place over a white bed of snowy terrain. But because it allows the studded tires to combat the slippery terrain, the rally’s average speed is surprisingly one of the fastest. Traditionally, Rally Sweden has been swept by the drivers from the Northern Europe—the only champions from other regions were Sebastien Loeb, Sebastien Ogier (France), and Thierry Neuville (Belgium). This year’s course had 19 SSs totaling the distance of 316.8 kilometers.
The Hyundai Team’s Neuville refreshingly ended the first stage in first place, but he was surpassed soon by the others, ending the Friday’s schedule in 7th place. Andreas Mikkelsen, on the other hand, completed the day in third place, steady without committing big mistakes.
Saturday, though, saw Toyota, Citroen, and Ford making aggressive runs and the leaders’ table becoming unpredictable. Overwhelming performance by Toyota’s Ott Tanak had him finish first, and Mikkelsen, who had at one point rose to second place, was surpassed by Citroen’s Lappi and teammate Neuville and finished fourth. Only Neuville would rise to the podium, finishing third.
As a result, Ott Tanak came to lead the driver championship at 47 points, seconded by Neuville, who had 40. Manufacturer table shifted as well. With Tanak’s victory, Toyota added 33 points and rose to first place, and Hyundai, which added 27 with Neuville and Mikkelsen’s finishes, sank to second.
Round 3: Mexico (Mar. 8-10)
Rally Mexico has the 2019 WRC’s first unpaved(gravel) course. It boasts the tallest heights of all 14 courses, at 2,737 meters above sea level. Low oxygen levels reduce car performance by maximum of 20%, and the weather, at 30℃ even in March, subjects the manufacturers’ vehicles to a true performance test.
In the early going, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen, and Dani Sordo were all ranked high, seemingly demonstrating the superior performance of the Hyundai vehicles. However, the race presented its expected obstacles. Neuville suffered a punctured tire after going through a rock that bounced off a preceding race car and was excluded from the leading group for good. Mikkelsen and Sordo, though, held onto their high positions.
On Friday afternoon, Mikkelsen’s racecar crashed off the course and hit a boulder, leading to a forfeit. Sordo, at one point, was merely 1.9 seconds away from the lead, but his car’s electrical problems led to an unfortunate forfeit as well.
The team’s lone bright spot was Neuville, who made up the time lost from the puncture and climbed up to 4th place from the low of 11th place. His finish added precious points to the team’s tally. Rally Mexico’s 313.87 kilometers over 21 Special Stages were won in the end by Citroen’s Sebastien Ogier, who clocked in at 3:37:08. Toyota’s Ott Tanak finished second, and Ford’s Elfyn Evans finished third. Dani Sordo ended the race in 9th place. The Hyundai team only added 20 points in the rally, falling beneath Citroen to third place.
Round 4: Corsica (Mar. 29-31)
Rally France takes place on the island of Corsica. Its courses are paved tarmac, but narrow, serpentine routes along the mountain ridges are its primary feature, leading to the nickname of “10,000 courses.” Rocks along the edges and cliffs leading to the sea present massive danger as well, should accidents occur. That the course underwent significant changes since last year (including the locations of the start and finish lines) was another challenge as well.
The rivalry of two local French drivers, Hyundai’s Sebastien Loeb and Citroen’s Sebastien Ogier, was a subject of attention in the days leading up to the rally. But when the rally began, it turned out that Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, Ford’s Elfyn Evans, and Toyota’s Ott Tanak commanded the spotlight. Until the very end, Neuville and Evans repeatedly traded the first and the second places. It was Neuville, who had started the last stage in the second place, who dramatically ended up raising the trophy.
As a result, the Hyundai Team won the season’s first victory and the 11th in the team history. The lead role belonged to Neuville, who surpassed Sebastien Ogier by whopping 40.3 seconds. The Hyundai Team’s Dani Sordo finished 4th, and Loeb 8th. All in all, Neuville and the Hyundai Team both finished the rally first place in their respective categories, blasting away the disappointments in the Mexico. Meanwhile, Citroen rose to second place in the manufacturer championship, thanks to 24 points from Ogier’s 2nd place finish. Toyota sank to third.
Round 5: Argentina (Apr. 25-28)
Rally Argentina takes place over a triad of diverse terrains: open plains, rugged mountains, and dirt-paved lakeside. In high precipitation, the course sees a lot of small and large pools, which causes the signature splashes of water as racecars move about. The base camp exists in the renowned tourist site of Villa Carlos Paz, about 700 kilometers Northwest from Buenos Aires.
When the rally began, Toyota’s Ott Tanak and Kris Meeke seemed to dominate, but Thierry Neuville rose to the top of the table on the second day. Neuville finished the Friday morning’s SS4 in 1st place, and never lost his grip on the position in terms of cumulative records till the rally’s end. Andrea Mikkelsen contributed too, finishing first in 3 stages.
In sum, the Hyundai Team had two drivers in top two finishes: Neuville in first and Mikkelsen in second, a double podium. Neuville now had consecutive victories (from Corsica), and Mikkelsen had his first podium finish. Worthy of note, Neuville accumulated 110 points in the driver category and kept his first-place position there. The Hyundai Team added 43 points to the manufacturer championship table, a record amount in a single rally, expanding the gap between the second place to 37 points.
Round 6: Chile(May. 10-12)
Chile was a new introduction to the competition, and no one knew what to expect. Along the course that once was paved for trucks hauling lumber, the racecars penetrated the deep forest. Pace notes were empty for all. Ideal vehicle settings and tire selections were unknown. The teams had to prepare for the unexpected, relying on the swift and prudent judgments of the drivers and co-drivers as well as vehicle reliability.
The first day, which comprised 6 SSs, all teams were busy making sense of the course. SS1 was won by Toyota’s Jari-matti Latvala and Kris Meeke, who co-finished at the top of the table. But Thierry Neuville, who finished sixth in SS1, had risen to third place by SS2, and to first place by SS3. On the next day, comprising SS7 through 12, there were several accidents of note.
In SS8, Neuville crashed, rolling the vehicle over ten times and retiring as a result. Thankfully, the injury to Neuvile and his co-driver was minor. The Hyundai Team’s veteran Sebastien Loeb showed finesse in navigating through the unknown and finished third place, rising to the podium. The team added 21 points, remaining in first at 178. Neuville fell to third place in the driver championship, failing to add any point due to retiring.
Round 7: Portugal (May 31-Jun 2)
Rally Portugal has never once changed its course since its first use in 1973; the new rules had only reduced its length by approximately 50 kilometers. But this stability does not take away from the course’s difficulty—narrow, soft dirt pavement over arid heights and several points of high speed ensure the thrill of a challenging race. Last year, the Hyundai Team’s Thierry Neuville had raised the trophy here.
First day, Dani Sordo came to lead the pack in SS1 and raised expectations. But by the time SS3 rolled around, a nightmarish outcome had come to the Hyundai Team. Unexpected rise in temperature led to underperformance of the vehicles, leaving Sordo and Sebastien Loeb to fall, while Toyota took advantage and steadily rose in the table. As for Neuville, he began to heighten his pace on the second day and began to climb.
The last day showed Neuville’s heroics. On the final power stage of Rally Portugal, with additional points at stake, Neuville finished in 2nd place and secured the 4 bonus points. Teammate Sordo contributed 1 point. The rally’s trophy went to Toyota’s Ott Tanak; second was Neuville, and third was Citroen’s Ogier. In the manufacturing championship, Neuville and Sordo’s combined 21 points secured the Hyundai Team’s lead.
Round 8: Italy (Jun 13-16)
Taking place on the scenic island of Sardinia, Rally Italy had a plenty of surprise breakdowns, accidents, and drama. Citroen’s Sebastien Ogier broke a suspension after running into a big rock upon turning a corner, and Toyota’s Jari-matti Latvala ran without the windshield after tumbling at a hairpin. The Hyundai Team’s Thierry Neuville took the wrong route at a fork due to the co-driver’s mistake. Moreover, steaming hot weather, above 30℃, exhausted both the drivers and the vehicles.
Dani Sordo was the standout of the Rally Italy. He took the first place on Friday morning with a flourish, and did not let go of it until Saturday morning. He fell prey to Ott Tanak’s aggressiveness and ceded the first place but kept at Tanak’s tail well, targetting a chance to reclaim the lead.
It was not until the SS19, the final stage of the rally, that such a chance came. Tanak’s Toyota Yaris racecar had a power steering failure at 7 kilometers to the race’s end. Tanak’s misfortune was Sordo’s fortune: he reclaimed the lead and finished first. Andreas Mikkelsen’s fantastic performance on Sunday saw him rise to third place as well, and the second time since Argentina, the Hyundai Team had a double podium to boast. The team added 40 points to its tally and comfortably expanded the gap between it and the second place Toyota.
Round 9: Finland (Aug 1-4)
2019 WRC reignited its engines after a half-month summer break. The site was Finland, a course totaling 307.58 kilometers divided into 19 SSs, and 10 racecars from four teams competed within it. The roads were unpaved, with intermittent boulders. While there are hills (and therefore jumps), the course is overall flat, with little difference in meters above sea level throughout. This stands as context on how 12 of the 13 fastest finishes in the WRC all-time came from Rally Finland.
The Hyundai Team’s start was not good. On Friday, while Toyota’s three drivers competed with Citroen on top of the table, the Hyundai Team’s drivers were mostly unremarkable.
On Saturday, though, Andreas Mikkelsen shook off his early rust and rose to 4th place, and Neuville targeted the leading group at a bit of distance in 7th place. Sunday had only 4 stages, however, and Mikkelsen kept his fourth place and added points, while Neuville finished in 6th with a final spurt.
Rally Finland’s standout was Toyota’s Ott Tanak. In second place was Citroen’s Esappeka Lappi, and third place belonged to Toyota’s Jari-matti Latvala. The Hyundai team had Mikkelsen in 4th, Thierry Neuville and Craig Breen in 6th and 7th, respectively. Though there was no podium finish, the team won 5 stages out of 23, and had 3 drivers in top 7—a record achievement for the team in Finland, which historically has been a problem. The team added 20 points to its tally, still securing first place in the manufacturer championship.
Round 10: Germany (Aug 22-25)
Among the second half rallies, Rally Germany, along with Rally Finland, is notorious for its difficulty. Most roads are paved tarmac, but routes that zigzag through Mosel’s famed grapevines are narrow enough to barely admit a car to pass. In addition, the pavement is often uneven, and there are many hairpins. From the beginning, a rivalry between Hyundai and Toyota was breathing fire.
Thursday’s first stage had Toyota’s Ott Tanak finishing first at 2:29:04, followed by Hyundai’s Dani Sordo, who trailed by a mere 0.8 seconds. Friday morning saw Neuville rise to first place. Until Saturday, Neuville kept on battling Tanak for the first place, with most races being determined under five seconds’ difference. The turning point of Rally Germany came on Saturday afternoon in SS13, which features the fearsome route through a tank training facility.
There, Neuville suffered a mysterious left rear tire puncture and fell nearly 1 minute and 30 seconds from the lead, breaking the tense balance that had been maintained. Neuville fell to 7th place, and the mood seemed to favor Toyota. Eventually, Toyota’s Tanak, Meeke, and Latvala built a stronghold on the first three places, leading to a sweep of the podium by the maker. Toyota added a record 43 points to the tally and seriously began its chase for the first place in the manufacturer championship. The remaining gap between Hyundai now stood at a mere 8 points.
Round 11: Turkey (Sep 12-15)
The 11th rally of the season took place in Southwestern Turkey. Scorching temperature and mountainous pathways covered by fist-sized gravel make Rally Turkey one of the harshest rallies of the WRC. The road conditions make it hard to get a grip, making it also hard to accelerate above the speed of meager 100 km/h. Indeed, Rally Turkey features the lowest average speed of all WRC rallies. It is therefore hard to expect much down force, and engines, transmissions, and tires are perpetually hot at high workload.
In the opening stage, SS1, the Hyundai Team’s Andrea Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville started on a high note, recording the fastest co-finish in 1st and 2nd place. While Mikkelsen kept his pace at 2nd, though, Neuville stumbled and fell behind the lead group. Meanwhile, the slumping Citroen began to show signs of energy, creating an interesting dynamic for the crowd.
In the end, Neuville had an accident on Saturday’s first stage and fell well behind the leading group. In his stead, teammates Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo raced valiantly, but it was difficult to stop the overwhelming performances of the Citroen duo, who left their competition literally in dust.
Ultimately, Citroen’s Sebastien Ogier and Esappeka Lappi, having dominated the race throughout, finished 1st and 2nd. Mikkelsen went to the podium at 3rd place, and Sordo finished 5th. Hyundai team could therefore add 25 points, keeping first place and again expanding the gap between Toyota for the manufacturer championship. But the news of Rally Turkey was all Citroen, who exhibited the power of the old guard in adding the record 43 points in a single rally to its tally.
Round 12: England (Oct 3-6)
The official name for the Round 12 is Wales Rally GB. Spanning 312.75 kilometers divided into 22 SSs, the rally predominantly features gravel paths across foliage-colored autumn forests. Reviewing its serpentine roads in a contour map, one might conclude it to be a relatively easy course. Yet, Thierry Neuville was cautious. “Its roads are the wettest of all courses, so we have to prepare for all contingencies,” he remarked before the race.
Weather in Wales was wicked as expected. The storm ‘Lorenzo’ had passed by a hairline before the race began, but the rain clouds that the storm had brought hit the tracks outright. The early goings had Toyota’s Kris Meeke dominate up top: beginning from Thursday’s SS1, he kept his hold on first place through SS9 on Friday. Neuville, too, had a good start. But stealing the scene was Hyundai’s Craig Breen, an Irish, who left deep impressions on the crowd with his confident run. But on Saturday morning he slid on a deep pool on a corner and tumbled out of the course, falling to 9th place, leaving the crowd in disappointment.
Ott Tanak, who started the first day in 13th place, eventually rose to 1st place by Saturday. Trailing right behind him was Neuville, who surpassed Citroen’s Ogier and Toyota’s Meeke in sequence to have risen to second. Neuville kept on closing the gap between himself and Tanak, but the race came to a close before he could take the lead. He finished second.
With Neuville in 2nd place and Mikkelsen in 6th, the Hyundai Team added 25 points to its tally. With Tanak leading the way, Toyota added 37, once again closing the gap between the Hyundai team to a mere 8 points.
Round 13: Spain (Oct 25-27)
One stage, two rallies. The thirteenth round of 2019 WRC, hosted in Spain’s Tarragona Province, can be summarized as such, because it is the only rally to simultaneously feature tarmac and gravel roads. Spanning 325.56 kilometers divided into 17 SSs, Rally Spain compelled the drivers and vehicles to frantically adjust to whimsical weather, dusty dirt roads, and muddy puddles.
Entering the rally, Toyota and Hyundai had different calculations. Toyota’s Ott Tanak could secure driver championship in this rally; at the same time, he could pursue manufacturer championship by overtaking the Hyundai Team. Thierry Neuville was the opposite of Tanak—while his winning the driver championship was unlikely at this stage, he had to secure the team’s manufacturer championship. For both drivers, this was no place to become complacent.
The Hyundai team dominated from the get-go, finishing first in 11 out of 17 SSs. Facing the last stage, Neuville was comfortably in first place with 21 seconds’ difference from the runner-up, and Sordo, a Spaniard, made his home crowd proud by coming in second place, with 5.8 seconds’ difference from the third. All signs pointed to a one-two finish, a repeat of the results in Argentina.
If the one-two finish had occurred, the Hyundai Team would have expanded the gap between it and Toyota to a comfortable 24 points, essentially securing the manufacturer championship. But such expectations were shattered when Tanak made a near-legendary performance in the final power stage, finishing astonishing six seconds ahead of the second place Sordo, the tables turned. Sordo finished third; Loeb was in fourth place. Though a bit of luster was lost, the Hyundai Team had nonetheless finished 1st, 3rd, and 4th in Rally Spain in complete domination.
Thanks to Neuville and Sordo’s double podium, the Hyundai Team added 40 points to its tally, leading the second-place Toyota by 18 points. In the driver championship, Ott Tanak accumulated 263 points and was crowned the driver champion, regardless of the results of the Rally Australia. The driver champion revealed that he “intend[s] to transfer to the Hyundai Team next season,” fueling the expectations for the team’s performances next year.
Round 14: Australia (Nov 14-17), Cancelled
With the Rally Australia ahead, the Hyundai Team was a likely winner of the manufacturer championship, thanks to a large 18-point lead it had built over the second place Toyota. Even if Toyota drivers were to finish first and second, the Hyundai Team only had to secure 3rd and 5th place finish to guarantee the championship. Expectations and excitement of the WRC fans at its hottest—and then, New South Wales Province, the site of Rally Australia, was hit by a forest fire.
Due to hot and arid weather, Australia is used to forest fires. But this year’s was particular in both magnitude and damage, which first led the Australian authorities to consider scaling down the rally, and then to completely cancelling it, in consideration of the worsening circumstances and popular backlash. The news of the cancellation came a mere two days before the rally’s beginning. And with that, an eleven-month journey, having begun from Monte Carlo in January, was at its sudden end. 2019 WRC was over.
In the driver category, Ott Tanak, who had finished second in Rally Spain, won the championship. The manufacturer championship went to the Hyundai Team, which outclassed Toyota by 18 points. It was an emotional victory for the maker, which in 1998 had entered the lower division of WRC and waited 21 years for the moment. The victory solidified the goal of the team for the next season: sweep the championships, both the driver’s and the manufacturer’s.
The goal seems not at all unrealistic, given that Ott Tanak, the incumbent driver champion, is joining the team the next season. 2020 WRC begins on January 23rd, yet again in Monte Carlo. It will have 14 rounds, with Australia, France, and Spain exiting and Kenya, New Zealand, and Japan taking their spots. Which means that the Korean national anthem may play in the final rally of the next season, Rally Japan, in celebration of the team’s two championships. One can only hope.
Words. Ki-bum Kim
Editor-in-chief and publisher of the online automobile medium . He is also the MC of the auto-related podcast . Since joining the magazine in 2000, Kim has walked the lone road of auto journalist. He is part of various domestic and international auto award committees, including Korea Joongang Daily’s Car of the Year, Future Mobility of the Year (KAIST), Engine of the Year (UK), and Car Design of the Year (Italy). He holds a Master’s degree from KAIST’s Science Journalism program for his “Research into Scientific Description of Automobile Trial Runs.”