(Photo: Geoff Ridder)
(6/11/2013) BELGIUM’S Thierry Neuville, one of the stars of the recent Coates Hire Rally Australia, will return to the New South Wales Coffs Coast next September as lead driver for Hyundai Motorsport in the FIA World Rally Championship, the team confirmed overnight.
As anticipated for several weeks, the 25-year-old has signed a multi-year agreement as the first driver to compete for the ambitious new German-based, Korean manufacturer team, which has said it plans to spend 320 million euros ($A454 million) over the first four years of its programme.
Neuville, along with his co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul, will pilot Hyundai’s i20 world rally car in all 13 WRC events in 2014, beginning with the team’s debut at the Monte-Carlo Rally in January and including Rally Australia on 11-14 September.
With Hyundai planning a two-car squad, Neuville’s signing still leaves a driver’s seat unfilled and hope yet that it might go to Australian Chris Atkinson, one of three test drivers currently helping to develop the i20 WRC.
Although Neuville has not won an event in his two seasons in WRC, a string of six straight podiums in 2013, including second place on Coates Hire Rally Australia in September, has made him the hottest property in the end-of-season driver market.
In switching to Hyundai and leaving his Qatar-funded M-Sport Ford drive, Neuville will prompt a string of deals between other teams and drivers whose negotiations have pivoted on the Belgian’s decision.
Citroen, M-Sport – and Hyundai – are now expected to finalise their line-ups from a pool of available talent said to include Mikko Hirvonen, Mads Ostberg, Robert Kubica, Dani Sordo, Kris Meeke, Evgeny Novikov, Elfyn Evans and Atkinson, among others.
Only Volkswagen’s drivers – new World Champion Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen – are confirmed for 2014.
Neuville says Hyundai is ‘the perfect fit’ for him.
“It is a young, emerging and ambitious manufacturer team with long-term objectives for championship success and I have long-held aspirations of driving for a manufacturer team,” he said.
“I was impressed with the team’s facility, their approach to the rally programme and their clear potential. I hope my two years of experience in WRC will be beneficial to the team as we build a harmonious working partnership.
“We know we have a steep learning curve ahead of us in our first season but I am convinced we will have a successful future together.”
Hyundai Motorsport Team Principal, Michel Nandan said: “Thierry is having a fantastic 2013 season and is proving himself to be one of the most exciting young drivers in WRC. His raw speed, driving skill and dynamic approach to rallying make him the ideal lead driver for Hyundai.”
Before moving to Hyundai, Neuville faces two important challenges in his final appearance with the Qatar WRT Ford Fiesta RS in Wales Rally GB on 14-17 November.
The first is to secure his second place in the drivers championship, which still can be won by Jari-Matti Latvala.
The second is to achieve his first WRC win, having come close on occasions during the 12 rounds of 2013 so far.
Then he will have barely eight weeks to get used to his new car and team before Round 1 of 2014 in Monte Carlo on 14-19 January.