Podium done. Post-event press conference done. Thierry Neuville walked to the interview area at the back of the media centre and sat down. Blowing his cheeks out, he lifted the cap from his head and ran his hand through his hair.
At that moment he caught sight of the big silver trophy standing on the table in front of him. The smile was back. And wider than ever. He’d done it.
“I came so close to this one in the past,” he said. “Last year. Remember last year? We were so close. I didn’t want that again. It’s true that when you are fighting like this, not everybody can win – two or three have to be disappointed. That was us. This time, we’re the ones with the big smile.”
Neuville, co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul and the whole Hyundai team really earned this one. Rallye Monte-Carlo has a habit of sending crews through the whole gamut of emotions. Last weekend didn’t disappoint.
Let’s look at the Belgian’s rally and the numbers associated with it. That stunning run through Thursday night’s second stage, the one where he was 25.5sec faster than anybody, bought him a 19.1sec lead.
Eight stages later and after Elfyn Evans’ breathtaking first run at La Bréole - Selonnet, he was 16.6sec behind in third place. Sunday afternoon, harbourside in Monaco, and he’d turned that back into a 12.6sec advantage.
Such major swings are fairly rare in the modern-day WRC, but when you do get them, it’s an indication of a very entertaining round. Monte-Carlo couldn’t have been more entertaining. It was an absolute epic. And the most unbelievable way to open the new season.
The mountains gave us the story and, once again, the Principality gave us the pomp and the occasion. There’s nowhere quite like Casino Square in January to see the WRC at its finest. Except this year, the beautiful gardens in the middle of the square looked a little like a construction site as they undergo renovation.
Don’t worry, the rest of Monaco was up to speed with supercars on every corner and a harbour full of some of planet earth’s most extraordinary yachts.
The yachts, for once, could wait while the World Rally Cars were in town. Especially as eyes grew accustomed to Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä in the red, white and black of Toyota and, of course, Ott Tänak in the blue and orange of Hyundai.
Tänak’s event turned into a nightmare with that fourth stage crash, but for his old boss, Tommi Mäkinen, there were plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Granted, the win didn’t come his way, but three Yaris cars in the top five, with two of them on the podium, is a solid start.
The same can be said for M-Sport Ford. Esapekka Lappi was a fine fourth, while Teemu Suninen overcame early transmission trouble to set some strong times on his recovery to eighth.
All of which begs the question… how long to Sweden?