The good news came from the southern hemisphere on Nov. 13, 2019―the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team (hereafter Hyundai Team) had clinched the 2019 WRC season’s manufacturer championship in Australia. It was a feat that had been long-awaited: the Hyundai Motorsports GmbH was established in Alzenau, Germany, in 2012, and the team’s re-entry into the WRC came in 2014, so it took six long years till the good news came.
And yet, the wait for the next one might not be too long―a year after the groundbreaking feat, the Hyundai Team is already poised to defend their title for a repeat. With only the Monza Rally in Italy remaining on Dec. 3, the Hyundai Team is sitting atop the manufacturer championship table. The gap between the second-place Toyota Team is merely 7 points, though, ensuring that the season will end on some thrilling drama.
Still, an upset appears unlikely. The Hyundai Team has wisely navigated through this obstacle-ridden season, let it be the pandemic-triggered hiatus or the truncated schedules, and perhaps more importantly, the team has performed extremely well in the late season. On the eve of the race to decide it all, we cover the Hyundai Team’s footprints to what it has become: an unquestionable WRC powerhouse poised to repeat as manufacturer champion.
Re-entry to WRC and Perseverance that Followed
About one year ago, the Hyundai Team earned the first WRC manufacturer championship in team history. The achievement marked the culmination of six seasons’ worth of perseverance―ever since the team reentered the WRC in 2014, each year had represented a tangible step forward. Think about it: in the most competitive arena represented by the world’s best auto manufacturers, six years was all it took for a newcomer to come out on top.
This is not to say that those six years were smooth sailing. Trials and errors―and setbacks―were commonplace. In fact, while the return to the competition came in 2014, the efforts to reinstate the team were well underway before that. The declaration of intent to re-enter came in the 2012 Paris Motor Show that fall, after which came the long process of internally developing a rally car. Korea’s Namyang Institute came to the German headquarters’ assist and led the development, in which it took an existing small hatchback in the European Market, the i20, and transformed it into the now-renowned i20 Coupe WRC rally car.
Meanwhile, recruiting was doing its work. In the team’s debut season in 2014, Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo joined the team, and their unwavering dedication in the next six years would add much to the team’s eventual powerhouse status. Neuville, in particular, would put the Hyundai Team on the map by winning the Round 9’s Rally Germany, the first rally victory in the team’s history. It was the kind of advertisement that the Hyundai Motor Group had hoped in committing to the team―and the first of many to come.
In 2017, the Hyundai Team introduced the new i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car, but even with the addition, the team’s growth appeared capped for a while: from 2016 to 2018, the team finished runner-up three times in a row for the manufacturer championship. Thierry Neuville was individually a shining mark, finishing with four victories in 2017 and three victories in 2018 in his trusty i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car.
Team’s First Manufacturer Championship Caps the Dramatic 2019 Season
Facing the 2019 season, the Hyundai Team boosted its chances by making two crucial moves. First, the team found the replacement for the incumbent manager, Michel Nandan, in Andrea Adamo. Second, the team bolstered its roster by adding Sebastien Loeb, the legendary driver who won 9 world championships in a row from 2004 to 2012. And as the last three years’ runner-up finishes in the manufacturer championship could testify, the i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car was certified in both performance and durability.
The Hyundai Team’s prospects appeared stronger than ever. The first round in Monte Carlo had Neuville finish second and Loeb fourth, an auspicious beginning to the season. The second and third rounds were not as kind, though, and the team saw its manufacturer standing fall to third at one point; however, the team regained momentum from the fourth round and found stability afterward. In Round 4’s Corsica Rally, Neuville won his first victory of the season and propelled the team’s standing to first place; in Round 5’s Rally Argentina, Neuville won again―widening the gap between the team and the runner-up to a whopping 37 points.
But the midpoint of the season saw some setbacks for the team. Round 9 and 10 in Finland and Germany had no Hyundai drivers on the podium―by the end of Round 10, the gap between the team and the runner-up had shrunk to 8 points. The team showed ultimate resilience, though, starting from Round 11’s Rally Turkey. The true clincher came in Round 13’s Rally Spain―Thierry Neuville won, and Dani Sordo and Sebastien Loeb came in third and fourth place, respectively, adding 40 points to the team’s tally in Spain alone. The gap between the team and the runner-up Toyota Team, at that point, was a comfortable 18 points.
The Hyundai Team’s victory came earlier than expected due to an unexpected variable. The finale to the 2019 season, Rally Australia, was canceled due to rampaging forest fires. This meant that the records up to Rally Spain constituted the final standings, which, of course, meant that the Hyundai Team had won. Six years after the team’s re-entry into the WRC in 2014, the team had won its first WRC manufacturer championship; just as important, it was also the first time that a South Korean auto manufacturer placed its name on the mantle of the motorsport’s greats.
2020 Season Begins with a Bang but Struck by Covid-19
After the 2019 season’s manufacturer championship, the Hyundai Team did not remain complacent―instead, it made a splash in signing a star. The team’s roster was already one of the best in the league: it featured Thierry Neuville, the runner-up driver champion for four seasons in a row; Dani Sordo, a six-year veteran loyal to the team; and Sebastien Loeb, the rally legend who needs no introduction. But added to this was Ott Tanak, the 2019 season’s driver champion, and a true powerhouse roster was born. Of course, the i20 Coupe Rally Car, whose quality performance was instrumental in the team’s victory last season, was honed to become even better.
And so, a championship roster just got stronger. And the 2020 season’s first round, Rally Monte Carlo, showed the world what this revamped champion was capable of. Thierry Neuville won in what was the first Monte Carlo victory of his career, making a figurative statement that the title was his team’s to lose.
But then came the stagnation―by Round 3 in Rally Mexico, the team was hanging on in second place in the manufacturer championship table, but the drivers were struggling to find any consistency. Amid the struggles, though, struck the pandemic that no one had expected. Covid-19 would put the world on hold, and the team’s push for the consecutive championships was also suspended for a while. Rally Mexico saw its schedule truncate, and the 2020 WRC season would enter into a six-month, pandemic-triggered hiatus.
Second Half of 2020 Season Sees the Rise of the Defending Champs
When the season resumed in September, the Hyundai Team seemed recharged from whatever struggles that had plagued them earlier. Indeed, their late-season push was nothing short of remarkable; in all three rallies following the season’s reopening, the team had double podium finishes, an absolutely dominant display of excellence. The team’s resilience was borne of the accumulated experience and know-how from the past several seasons, during which the team competed with the best and, in the 2019 season, won the championship.
The team’s late-season push started with Ott Tanak. He won in Estonia, his home country, marking his first victory in a Hyundai Team uniform. Dani Sordo followed up by winning Round 6’s Rally Italy, his second consecutive victory in that circuit. There were more than just victories, of course. Thierry Neuville was runner-up in Turkey and Italy, Craig Breen was runner-up in Estonia, and Sebastien Loeb showed that his class is permanent by finishing third in Turkey. As seen, the team’s late-season rise was a true team effort―consistent contributions from all drivers in the roster met the performance of the i20 Coupe WRC Rally Car, culminating in the rise of the defending champs.
The Hyundai Team added 43 points in Rally Italy―the maximum amount of points earnable for a team in a single rally―and overtook the Toyota Team in the manufacturer championship table. After the mid-season stagnation and the glooms of Covid-19, the team showed remarkable resilience in bringing it back to the championship conversations. As for the driver championship, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak are third and fourth, not mathematically eliminated yet, looking for an upset in the season’s finale, Rally Monza.
The ups and downs of the 2020 season come down to the season finale―Rally Monza in Italy. The gap between the Hyundai Team and the 2nd-place Toyota Team is just 7 points, close enough for one rally to change everything.
But given its torrid late-season form, the Hyundai Team appears poised to take the manufacturer championship for a repeat performance. Last year, the news came on November 13 from Australia. This year, the same news might just come on December 6 from Monza, Italy. One can only hope.