Success at last: Neuville triumphs on rally of the gods

September 17, 2022

Written by: Chris Hosie

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Last time out saw another Hyundai victory at the hand of Ott Tanak on the Asphalt of Ypres. Now the WRC would face its toughest test of the season. The car breaking, gravel stages of the Acropolis Rally in Greece. The most demanding gravel rally anywhere on Earth.

The rally started on the Thursday night with a blast round the Olympic Stadium in Athens. It would prove to be one of the most dramatic opening stages in recent memory. Thierry Neuville took first blood by winning the stage. Also taking first blood on the stage was Junior championship contender, Sami Pajari. He would be the fastest of his class on SS1. WRC3 contender, William Crieghton, was also one to watch on the stage. However, the real drama came from WRC2. Andreas Mikkelsen crashed out of the stage after his Skoda collided with a wall. This would greatly hamper the Norwegians championship chances as the weekend progressed. He wasn’t the only one. In pre-event testing, Eyvind Brynildsen crashed his Skoda heavily. Requiring a shell to be brought over from Hungary. Despite missing Shakedown, Brynildsen would start the rally and was determind to show what he could do against the established WRC2 brigade.

Friday was soon to dawn and it would be an incredible day for returning, 9-time world champion, Sebastian Loeb. The M-Sport Ford driver stealing the lead off of Neuville and would end the day with a commanding lead. Also making the Ford camp happy was fellow Frenchman, Pierre Louis Loubet. He would claim his first ever WRC stage win on SS5 followed by another on SS6. At the end of the day, the French star of the future would be second behind his teammate. A terrific first day for the French contingent.

Neuville was once again struggling to find a response to the rest of the top contenders. He would be stuck down with his Hyundai teammates in the middle of the top 10. Ott Tanak and Dani Sordo were having an average day on Friday. Both trying to get useful points on the cards as the season was now entering its business end. For Tanak though it was crucial that he score more valuable points if he was to stand a chance against the still dominant Toyotas.

On this occasion the Toyotas were having a rather difficult day. Kalle Rovanpera would be stuck down in 9th for the day as his Yaris’ damper setting weren’t finding the tough, Greek stages to their liking. The same was the case for his Welsh Teammate Elfyn Evans. He would be stuck down in eighth for most of the day. Takamoto Katsuta was having an equally difficult time of it. He was done in 10th. One crumb of comfort came from the other Flying Fin. Esapekka Lappi had a superb Friday. Winning SS4 and finishing the day in third. Perfectly poised to challenge the two leading Frenchman.

Also going well, in seventh place, was the Ford of Gus Greensmith. He was also struggling to keep pace on the stages. Though his day as dramatic as his teammates. Craig Breen had a rather Smokey start to the morning. His car showing smoke on SS2 which then led to him stopping on SS4 as his car was suffering with overheating issues.

In WRC2, the battle was well and truly on. With first blood going to Teemu Suninen on the Thursday night. Then on Friday, the Hyundai development driver was in combat with fellow Fin, Emil Lindhom. The latter taking the lead and holding it overnight. In second place was the second Toksport Skoda of Nikolay Gryazin. He would also duel it out with Suninen. Eventually demoting the Hyundai star to third. Yohan Rossel, the main Championship protagonist, was in a prime fourth place and ready to pick up the pieces if the top three should faulter.  

The biggest news in the class was that of Eyvind Brynildsen. Despite having a borrowed car, he would end the day in an astonishing fifth place. In one of the best drives of the Norwegians career. Andreas Mikkelsen was also going well, having managed to restart after Thursday’s drama. However, he would spend the day squabbling with the Privateers further down the WRC2 order. Britain’s Chris Ingram was also having a great day along with Armin Kremer. Who, once again, was leading the WRC2 Masters class.

Elsewhere, the battle for the Junior class was in full swing. Jon Armstrong was one of the key drivers hoping to claim a championship. As this weekend was the season Finale of the 2022 Junior WRC season. Disaster would strike at the end of the day for the Irishman. Picking up a puncture that put him well of the pace of the leader. Robert Virves immediately stamped his authority on the class, ending the day with a very commanding lead over the rest of his rivals.  

In WRC3, William Creighton was the driver of the day winning five of the days six stages. He was pursued though, by fellow competitor Diego Dominguez. The Paraguay driver keeping the Irishman honest in second.   

Saturday came and over the course of one hour the entire story of the rally would be turned on its head on multiple occasions. In fact, the whole day was one of insane drama and calamity. Sebastian Loeb went into the first stage with the rally lead. Then he came out of it with his rally over, thanks to an Alternator problem. The day would get more disastrous for the Ford camp. Monsieur Loubet dropping off the top of the leader board thanks to a massive delamination of his left front tyre. Also, in trouble on SS8 was the championship leader. Kalle Rovanpera went wide on a tight, right-hand bend and smacked his Toyota of the trees. So hard that he lost his rear wing along with the entire boot lid. He would make it back to service. However, his chances of taking another win, were well and truly wrecked. Along with his seemingly dominant Toyota.   

one of the benefitiaries of these dramas was Esapekka Lappi. He would soon be in combat with the three Hyundais for the lead. Then on SS11, disaster struck. The Fin suffered a fuel pressure problem and this dropped him well down the leader board. At one point he was registered as 19th on the overall standings. A monumental disaster for both the Ford and Toyota camps. Also having a dramatic ending to his rally was WRC2 star Chris Ingram. He went off and down a very steep cliffside. That saw his Skoda roll and tumble about 6 times before coming to rest by a back of trees. His rally was over, the car was wrecked but, thankfully, Ingram and His Co-Driver, both made it out ok.

Other key names to retire and have difficulties included JWRC star, Sami Pajari. He retired due to issues with his Fiesta Rally3. Gus Greensmith also retired latter in the day from Rally1, causing more heartbreak for the M-Sport outfit.

All this was great news for the, now three, leading Hyundai’s. Neuville was now back in the lead and instantly opened a gap over his Estonian Teammate Tanak. Who, subsequently, was ahead of the super quick Spaniard, Dani Sordo. Elfyn Evans was in fourth place and was the only Toyota left that could offer any significant challenge to the trio of Korean built Rally1 super cars. The remaining Rally1 contenders struggled on through the rest of the day. 

Despite the retirements, things were still frenetic in the support classes. In WRC2 Emil Lindholm still led but, was exchanging times with Gryazin, Suninen and Rossel. Yohan, in particular was on a flyer on Saturday. He would end the day in third place, demoting Suninen down to fourth. Gryazin still sat pretty in second. While, elsewhere, Prokop, Kremer and Brynildsen were also showing top form on the increasingly car killing stages.

In WRC3 Dominguez was still in front with Creighton still holding on in third. The real star of the class, along with the class leader, was local star Epameinondas Karanikolas. He was a solid second in class and well on his way to a very splendid result on home soil. In the Juniors, it was Still Virves out front. However his lead was being reduced, chunk by chunk, by a charging Jon Armstrong. The Irishman was proving so fast that, on one stage, he took 30 seconds out of the Estonians lead. Would this charge see him win the class and with it the championship?  

Sunday was soon upon the survivors of the previous two days. However, before the rally was done, there would be more drama and heartbreak. This time it struck the Welshman, Evans. On SS14 his car started to suffer problems, problems of the sort that saw the man who had just been demoted to third in the points, retire from the rally. Another superstar and another Toyota biting the ungodly dust.

Not that Thierry Neuville and his Hyundai Teammates could see what the fuss was about. The Gods had smiled on them all through the weekend. Especially for the Belgian, he would cruise home to end the day as the 2022 Acropolis Rally Winner. Tanak was also on a charge that day but team orders saw him settle for second place. Sordo completing an all Korean podium in third. Craig Breen came home in with a resurgent and recovering Loubet to round out the bottom of the top 5. Katsuta, the only Toyota to score points on this event, coming to the end with a safe sixth place. Esapekka Lappi also finished but way down in the mid-20s. Rovanpera also managed to finish the event and Saturday. However, he would be finish in the lower margins of the top 30.  

The final stage of the rally would deal more despair for the French rally community. Yohan Rossel, top pick for the WRC2 championship crown, rolled his Citroen on the last few kilometres of the last stage of the rally. Also in trouble was Teemu Suninen. He lost a lot of pace on the final tests and would score a 10th place finish. Getting Rossel’s third place, was local star, Alexandros Tsouloftas. He would come home behing the two Toksport Skodas. With Emil Lindholm taking the victory in the class as well as honours in the WRC2 Junior division. Gryazin came home a resounding second place.

Eyvind Brynildsen came home a remarkable and fantastic fourth place. Undoudtably one of, if not, the best drive of his career. Especially considering that on Thursday, he virtually had to take the wheel of a loaned Fabia. Farbizio Zaldivar came fifth with Asia Pacific star, Gaurav Gill, taking sixth. Andreas Mikkelsen salvaged his weekend with a seventh place result and Martin Prokop took home an eighth place result. Armin Kremer came 11th overall but, would take home another first place trophy for the WRC2 Masters class.

WRC3 saw the first win, ever in his WRC career, for Diego Dominguez. Second place was the delighted Karanikolas while, William Crighton took home a solid third. Sami Pajari and Lauri Joona would also finish in the class, having restarted under super rally, though they would be hoping for more fruitful luck next time out.

In the Junior WRC, Robert Virves had one simple mission. Keep hold of his lead and keep it from going to Armstrong. Because it wasn’t just the rally win that was at stake. It was the Junior championship title as well. Armstrong, likewise, also has an objective. Take the led from the cautious Estonian and claim the crown of Junior champion. As the day wore one, the Irishman, once again, took chunks out of Virves’ lead. But, it just wasn’t enough. As the cars finished the final stage. Robert Virves was confirmed as the Junior class winner of the Acropolis rally. But, most importantly, he was now crowned the 2022 Junior World Rally Champion. Armstrong came a noble second with fellow Irishman Creighton taking third. In a season that has seen five epic events and a three way title fight like no other. Robert Virves showed his rivals and the world at large who was boss on stages that had once been travelled by the gods themselves. Robert Virves, a worthy and noble Junior champion. Another Estonian star, destined for greatness in seasons to come.

Back in the Rally1 class, the battles aren’t quite over yet. Despite the carnage, Toyota still have a commanding lead in the Manufacturers standing and Kalle Rovanpera still has a very comfortable lead in the drivers standing. Many now estimate that the fin only has to score just a few points at the next event and he will be crowned World Rally Champion.

And what a backdrop we are heading to next, The return of a much loved classic, Rally New Zealand. A rally that has seen many great cars, teams and drivers make names or themselves on their way to championship glory. Drivers such as McRae, Burns, Sainz, Loeb, Gronholm, Delacour, Makinen and the legendary Posum Bourne have all made this ncredile rally one of the all time greats. Can Harri Rovanpera, become another member of this elite club? Can Hyundai mount a Toyota stopping Defence?

Find out on September 29th-October 2nd, when the stars and cars of the WRC return for some more high speed high octane action.


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