Had Thierry Neuville emerged from Rally Chile's Maria las Cruces stage that Saturday morning in the mountains above Concepcion without crashing, would the title have been his? No.
The season’s most spectacular shunt is probably a fair place to start looking for reasons why Neuville didn’t lift his first world title this year, but he didn’t lose it there. Undoubtedly, if he hadn’t toppled off a wall in Turkey and dropped the car onto its side, it would have been closer. He might have come to Wales 10 points behind Ott Tanak instead of 30. But he would still have lost. Neuville’s commitment and effort were admirable through Rally GB, but ultimately he still had no answer to the speed his rival had on tap through the Welsh woods.
Podium finishes on seven of the 13 rounds demonstrated, once again, that Neuville’s got the consistency needed to challenge for a title, but this year the package of man and machine just wasn’t quite up to the job. That the Toyota Yaris WRC was the fastest car is really beyond doubt, so in that respect, Neuville did the best he could with the kit he was given.
Coming into Chile, Neuville was on the top of his game. Back-to-back wins in Corsica and Argentina had put him on top of the table and, following stage seven overlooking Chile’s Pacific coast, he was running third, a couple of seconds off second place. Then, bang. Over (and over) and out. Neuville wouldn’t lead the title chase again.
The silver lining to his season was helping Hyundai win a maiden manufacturers’ world championship title - a genuinely worthwhile and significant achievement - and he beat the man who hasn’t been beaten for the last six years. Another significant achievement. It’s just a shame the likeable bespectacled one found the speed to do that in the year that Ott Tanak crested the wave and smashed the pair of them.