Hyundai’s Safari Rally mindset buoyed by breakthrough Sardinia win

Cyril Abitebou holding the first winning trophy after Rally Italia Sardegna 2023. Image: Romain Thuillier/Hyundai Motorsport GmbH

Hyundai Motorsport Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul believes the manner of the one-two finish on Sardinia will help improve the mindset within the Hyundai set-up going to round seven – Safari Rally Kenya – next week.

Hyundai’s long wait for a first win of the new World Rally Championship season was achieved in “beautiful fashion” with a one-two finish at Rally Italia Sardegna earlier this month, Abiteboul has said, in what was also a maiden victory from the Frenchman since taking over as Team Principal in January.

“We have been very consistently on podiums before this season, but clearly there was a trend and I think we cannot deny there was a trend that Toyota was starting to chip away from us in the different championships,” he added.

“So clearly the win and this team result is important to the championship, but not just to the championship but to the whole dynamics.

“It is not just metal, it is also brain and heart and confidence and you know this has been changing a little bit things, changing the dynamic in particular before another tough one which will be Kenya is extremely important.”

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In Sardinia, Thierry Neuville came on strong in the second half of the gravel counter to move to the top of the timesheets and finish 33 seconds clear of team-mate and erstwhile leader, Esapekka Lappi.

Squad members and many fans had hoped success would have come at April’s Croatia Rally following the sudden death of Irishman Craig Breen to a testing accident in the lead up to it – something both Neuville and Abiteboul alluded to in their post-Sardinia remarks.

Neuville’s victory – his third on the island – was a much-needed shot in the arm for his ambitions of staying in the World Rally Championship title fight which Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Kalle Rovanpera currently leads by 25 points. It also moved Hyundai to within 23 points of Toyota in the manufacturers’ race.

It was one of the few moments of 2023 that Hyundai’s i20 N Rally1 car wasn’t hampered by a mechanical or transmission-related problem which allowed Neuville and Lappi to take the fight to Sebastien Ogier, who ended up going off the road on Saturday’s penultimate stage.

“We have been consistent podium finishers so far this season but we were yet to win, and we have done that in beautiful fashion. Although such a result in challenging conditions is always a team effort, our drivers need to be particularly praised,” said Abiteboul. “Esapekka was absolutely remarkable all the way through, in his approach before and during the rally.

“The pressure he applied continuously to Ogier most certainly contributed to the mistake he made. Thierry had an amazing stage 14, which was a demonstration of his determination to win here in Sardinia as his confidence in the car was building stage-by-stage.”

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