It’s not often that beer and sporting success go hand in hand. However, wind back the clock to Rally Mexico 2014 and this popular beverage played an unlikely, yet vital cameo in saving Hyundai from the heartbreak of throwing away a first World Rally Championship podium at the final hurdle.
The moment is among motorsport’s strangest stories and has earned a rightful place in WRC folklore. This year Hyundai celebrates its 10th season since it made the bold decision to return to the WRC, where it has since become a force in world rallying. It’s a milestone Hyundai is keen to mark with special branding adorning this year’s i20 Ns. While the marque heads to Mexico with 100 WRC podiums (25 wins) and two manufacturers’ titles under its belt, its success can be traced back to a critical bottle of Corona lager that avoided heartbreak, and the quick-thinking Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul.
“I mean the WRC has had a lot of stories but that one was definitely a special one,” Neuville, who has contested every round of Hyundai’s latest WRC spell to date, tells Motorsport.com. “At the time it was a new manufacturer coming into the championship. For me, after I had a good season with Ford, I signed for a new manufacturer and scored its first podium thanks to a bottle of beer, it was a nice headline. It was one of the great moments to remember in the history of WRC.”
Hyundai wasn’t a new name in WRC parlance in 2014 but this was very much a new dawn for the car maker in rallying’s top flight. Its previous foray into the WRC included success in the short-lived F2 class in the late 1990s, where it recorded a best result of championship runner-up to Renault with its Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson-driven Coupe Evo 2.
It then progressed to WRC’s top tier in 2000 with the Accent WRC car but in almost four seasons, two fourth-place finishes (Australia, 2000 – Eriksson) and (Great Britain, 2001- McRae) were its best results. Hyundai subsequently ended its arrangement with its British partner Motor Sport Developments (MSD), which developed the car, during the 2003 season. It wasn’t until 2012 that the brand announced plans to return in 2014, with the i20 designed and developed by a new factory team set up in Alzenau, Germany.
The trip to Mexico’s brutal high altitude rough gravel stages in 2014 was only the third outing for the new i20 and had come off the back of a difficult start to Hyundai’s second spell in WRC. A disastrous double retirement for Neuville and Dani Sordo on the opening stage of the i20’s debut in Monte Carlo was a nightmare scenario, while Neuville and Juho Hanninen crashed out of the following Rally Sweden.
Hyundai opted for the i20 to carry its challenge on returning to the WRC
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But when the i20 hit the gravel of Mexico, Hyundai’s fortunes turned. It wasn’t however plain sailing as Neuville battled engine issues early in the rally while his team-mate, former factory Subaru driver Chris Atkinson, was hampered by an electrical issue and a broken right rear suspension on the Friday.
This edition of Rally Mexico was a particularly brutal affair, which actually favoured the WRC newbies. A crash for Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen, a broken alternator for M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen and smashed suspension for Citroen’s Kris Meeke helped elevate Neuville to fifth at the end of Friday, albeit 2m30.2s adrift of runaway leader Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier.
The list of retirements continued to grow on Saturday when second-placed Mads Ostberg damaged the suspension on his Citroen DS3. The relentless high rate of attrition coupled with improved speed from Neuville, lifted the Belgian into the third, 4m37.0s in arrears.
“We emptied the camel bags at some point, but we had the bottle of beer from the podium that was given instead of champagne. At the end, it was the only option left to save the podium” Thierry Neuville
It seemed as though a breakthrough first WRC podium for Hyundai was on the cards after Neuville and co-driver Gilsoul held on to secure third on Sunday behind the dominant Volkswagen pair of winner Ogier and team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. The result sparked wild celebrations on the podium, which included the pair receiving a giant one-litre bottle of Corona beer, courtesy of the rally sponsors Corona. And it was lucky it wasn’t sprayed or consumed there and then.
In a matter of moments, jubilation turned to panic as unbeknown to Neuville the run through the final Power Stage had pieced a small hole in the i20’s radiator and coolant had slowly begun to drain away. Warning lights ablaze, Neuville brought the car to a halt on the road section and a heartbreaking retirement appeared to be on the horizon. The provisional podium result would only be secured if Neuville and Gilsoul could complete the final 20.5-mile road section to the final service in the rally’s host city Leon.
“We got a hot temperature alarm and we saw we had a hole in the radiator, so we had to fix it and it was very stressful for us as we still had a long road section to go,” says Neuville.
To be a successful driver and co-driver in the WRC, being resourceful and able to think on the fly are key attributes. These skills came to the fore as the pair were able to fix the hole in the radiator with their tools in the car, but replacing the lost fluid was more complex. With fluid required to refill the car’s radiator and water from the driver’s and co-driver’s camel bags already gone, Neuville and Gilsoul were desperate. It was at this moment when the pair dived for the bottle of Corona handed to them on the podium as a last resort.
Neuville’s run to Hyundai’s first podium was almost knocked off course in the final road section
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images
“We were not left with any other choice to be honest,” recalls Neuville. “We emptied the camel bags at some point I think but we had the bottle of beer from the podium that was given instead of champagne. At the end, it was the only option left to save the podium. It was a big one [bottle], but it helped us secure the first podium for the team.”
Incredibly, it had the desired effect as the i20 brimming with one of Mexico’s finest alcoholic beverages completed the road section to Leon to clinch the podium and decrease the rapidly rising heart rates in the Hyundai camp. This most unexpected of outcomes created a piece of priceless marketing gold for the rally sponsors. To add further gloss to the yarn, last year the story was voted by a panel of experts as one of the 50 greatest moments in WRC history.
“It is always nice looking back at the footage from the past,” Neuville adds. “I remember that situation. I mean at that time it was very important to secure the first podium for Hyundai in WRC after only three races. We were close to losing it all after the finish of the Power Stage, but we handled it and made some good advertising at the same time. We benefitted from it.”
While the dramatic scenes still leave many in awe today, it is all part of being rally driver according to Neuville.
“We are not only drivers and co-drivers, we are also mechanics and we have to make decisions on our own in terms of strategy, tyre choices and tyre management. Sometimes we are out on the stages on our own without phone signal, and if we have a problem we have to solve it in a couple of seconds and take the right decisions. This is what rally is about and what makes it so much more exhausting sometimes than any other motorsport discipline.”
Podium secured, Hyundai went on to score a third in Rally Poland before Neuville claimed the team’s first WRC win at a chaotic Rally Germany, that incredibly started with Neuville flipping his i20 in Thursday’s shakedown. The unlikely recovery, aided by crashes from Ogier, Latvala and Meeke helped Neuville head Sordo for a one-two on the way to the Belgian finishing sixth in the drivers’ standings. Since then, Hyundai has steadily climbed the rally rankings adding 24 more victories (Neuville scoring 16 of those) in addition to winning back-to-back constructors’ crowns in 2019 and 2020.
“After the first podium we got the first win and then I’ve had lots of podiums, some nice fights and all good memories and hopefully plenty more to come,” he adds, as he prepares to rekindle some of the magic of 2014 to fire Hyundai to another podium this weekend.
Rally Mexico winner Sebastien Ogier celebrates with his giant Corona. Neuville found a better use for his…
Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images