In only the second round of the season, the South Korean marque attempted deploy team orders by switching the positions of its drivers Neuville and Craig Breen ahead of the final powerstage.
Contesting only a partial season, Breen had led Hyundai’s charge for the majority of the rally on his return to the WRC.
The 33-year-old led the event from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening when the Irishman, battling a hybrid issue, surrendered the advantage to eventual winner M-Sport’s Ott Tanak.
Sitting 8.5 seconds behind Tanak ahead of the final stage, Hyundai chose to deliberately check Breen into the final stage a minute late to enforce a 10s penalty to place him behind Neuville, who had successfully fought off Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera to cement third.
The penalty meant Breen headed into the stage 0.5s behind Neuville in the overall standings, but a mistake from the latter at a tight left-hander meant the Belgian dropped behind Breen, who was unaware of the issue for his team-mate.
In the end, Breen finished second 18.7s behind Tanak with Neuville, 1.3s further back in third.
Hyundai’s third car driven by Esapekka Lappi won the powerstage as the Finn recovered to seventh after a tyre failure on Saturday dented his podium hopes.
Despite the team orders attempt failing, new Hyundai team principal Abiteboul believes it was the right call to try the switch.
Cyril Abiteboul, Team principal Hyundai World Rally Team
Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport
“I’m smiling because we entered the powerstage with three targets,” said Abiteboul.
“The first was to win the powerstage with Esapekka and that is what happened. We really worked hard on it to get the car as best as we could for that stage.
“Then we had the target of having two cars on the podium and that has been maintained so that is a big achievement and then we made our life a bit more difficult to give Thierry an opportunity to finish a bit higher up and that didn’t work.
“To a certain degree, I think we did the right thing — for a team perspective, when you are fighting for a championship, you want to give the drivers maximum opportunity, which is what we did for Thierry. But the God of Speed decided otherwise but I like the God of Speed so the result will stand.
“We have lots of smiles from everyone including Thierry who had a fantastic comeback having started the weekend on the backfoot for lots of reason, so to be back on the podium that is a good story for him.”
Neuville explained that he had simply misjudged his braking during the stage.
Despite the mishap, he was happy to achieve his target of beating Rovanpera after preparations for the weekend were hampered by illness ruling him out of his pre-event test.
“I just went a bit wide and the gap with Craig was very small,” Neuville told Autosport.
“I tried to do a good stage as I wanted to take some powerstage points, but I went a bit late on the brakes in the only corner where I have been too early [on the brakes] all weekend. I took it a bit hard and I lost the time there.
“That was the target [to beat Kalle] and in a straight fight we were faster than Kalle this weekend, but it doesn’t mean we are going to be fast in Mexico.”
Breen admitted the end result wasn’t what Hyundai had planned but feels the team can be pleased with the ultimate outcome.
“It is what it is — it wasn’t intended,” Breen told Autosport.
“The intention was to let Thierry finish second and it is quite clear from the team that the priority is to at least give Thierry the best chance of the championship, so it kind of backfired on us. But two cars on the podium, we have to be happy about that.”