Thierry Neuville secured victory at EKO Acropolis Rally Greece on Sunday afternoon, leading a historic 1-2-3 finish for the Hyundai i20 N.
The Belgian driver seized the top spot early on Saturday after nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb retired with alternator failure. From that moment onwards he never looked back.
Neuville’s Hyundai squad emerged from the penultimate day unscathed while several frontrunners hit trouble. He carried an advantage of almost half a minute over teammate Ott Tanak into Sunday’s three-stage finale with Dani Sordo completing the podium lockout in third.
Tanak brought back 2.9s on the first pass through Elefthori, but any hopes of the Estonian putting more pressure on his colleague were quashed as team orders came into play.
Fourth-placed Elfyn Evans — driving a Toyota GR Yaris — was sidelined by turbo problems on the road section before the opener, leaving the front-running trio more than three minutes clear of the field.
Under instructions to bring the cars home, all three Hyundai drivers went into safety mode. Their positions remained unchanged and Neuville took the spoils by 15.0s — marking his first victory of the WRC’s hybrid era as well as a first podium lockout for the Korean manufacturer squad.
“It has been a tough season so far and to get the victory after a very difficult weekend in Belgium is a relief,” Neuville said.
“The most important thing is that we have a 1-2-3 for the team. After all these years we finally got it and it’s a historical moment for the brand and the team. Everybody has worked hard for this and it’s a nice reward.”
Tanak’s score moved him to within 53 points of championship leader Kalle Rovanpera, who finished more than 17 minutes off the pace. The 21-year-old Finn hit a tree on Saturday and hemorrhaged time nursing his Yaris to the finish. He did, however, salvage four points from the Wolf Power Stage and could seal the crown at the next round should he outscore Tänak by eight points.
Pierre-Louis Loubet fought back to equal his career-best result by finishing fourth overall aboard an M-Sport Ford Puma. He briefly led and took two stage wins on Friday but tumbled down the standings with a front left puncture the following day, eventually ending 1m52.5s down on Sordo.
Loubet’s teammate Craig Breen had similar issues on Friday but, aided by problems for those ahead, climbed to sixth overall. The Irishman trailed Loubet by 26.8s with Toyota youngster Takamoto Katsuta 2m12.1s behind.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Emil Lindholm took victory. The Finn swooped into the lead on Friday morning and never faltered as rough gravel roads and sweltering heat obliterated a number of his rivals.
He began Sunday’s final leg 44.6sec clear of Nikolay Gryazin’s similar Skoda Fabia Rally2 and measured that gap to perfection, cruising through the last three stages drama-free to take the spoils by 36.1s from his Toksport teammate as well as topping the WRC2 Junior standings in eighth overall.
Lindholm took a surprise win on his last outing in Finland after Teemu Suninen was disqualified due to a technical infringement. He admitted the champagne tasted much sweeter this time around.
“We won this rally on our pace and I am so happy, honestly,” he beamed. “I knew when we came here that it could be a good rally for us, but there are always question marks and lots of risks.
“We really managed it well and I am very grateful to the team for providing us with a car which could survive in these conditions.”
Yohan Rossel was on course to complete the podium but an uncharacteristic mistake saw the Citroën C3 Rally2 driver roll out of contention on a hairpin bend.
The WRC next heads down under later this month as Repco Rally New Zealand hosts the 11th of the series’ 13 rounds. The gravel fixture returns to the calendar for the first time since 2012 and takes place from September 29-October 2.
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe, Hyundai i20 N, 3h34m52.0s
2. O Tänak / M Jarveoja, Hyundai i20 N, +15.0s
3. D Sordo / C Carrera, Hyundai i20 N, +1m49.7s
4. P-L Loubet / V Landais, Ford Puma, +3m42.2s
5. C Breen / P Nagle, Ford Puma, +4min 9.0s
6. T Katsuta / A Johnston, Toyota GR Yaris +6m21.1s
Drivers’ championship points (after round 10 of 13):
1. K Rovanpera 207 pts
2. O Tanak 154pts
3. T Neuville 131 pts