Hyundai Motorsport has announced the appointment of Frenchman Cyril Abiteboul in the role of Team Principal to strengthen German-based World Rally Championship operations in Alzenau, a few miles to the east of Frankfurt. Abiteboul is a high-energy talented individual, who operated in Formula 1 in various roles between 2001 and the start of 2021. He has since been involved as a consultant and working with a private equity firm calld Inspiring Sport Capital, which a year ago put him in charge of CDK Technologies, a leading player in the world of offshore yacht racing, including such events as the Vendée Globe and the Route du Rhum.
The strange thing about the Hyundai appointment is that Abiteboul has no background in rallying. He joined to work in Formula 1 marketing. He became the manager of the team’s business development in 2007 and in 2010 was named as executive director of Renault Sport F1 in 2010, after the team’s unfortunate adventures in Singapore in 2008, which came to light a year later. As Renault was reducing its direct involvement in F1, he left at the end of 2012 and joined Caterham F1 as team principal. He played an important role in the negotiations between Caterham and Renault not only over the F1 engine deal, but also on the plan to revive the Alpine brand by sharing the costs of developing the car that would become Alpine A110. The idea was to build the same platform to build the A110 and the Caterham C120, which gave Renault a leg-up in reviving the Alpine brand. Unfortunately, Caterham was unable to stay the course because it could not find the money to complete the project and so Renault took over the whole thing with the result being the Alpine company we see today. With no money in F1 either, Caterham was in trouble and Abiteboul departed in the summer of 2014 and was rehired by Renault, which had decided to get back into F1. He became the Managing Director of Renault Sport F1 and was expected to be the team principal of Alpine F1, but the new Renault management decided it wanted a change and so Abiteboul was dropped.
This does all beg the question of whether or not there is more to this than meets the eye. Hyundai’s WRC programme has been going since 2014 without huge success, although the company won the WRC Manufacturer’s championship in 2019 and 2020 but has not managed to win the Drivers’ title. The Korean firm says that his arrival aims to “allow the team to explore new areas for improvement in its tenth season in WRC, in which it hopes to mount a more sustained fight for the championship titles”.
The move in interesting in that there have been some vague rumours around that Hyundai might want to enter Formula 1 in 2026. Korea is a big player in the global car industry and last year ranked fifth in the world in terms of automobile production with 3.46 million cars. The company has recently changed leadership and there are rumours of plans for a street race in Seoul. These are sufficiently serious for Stefano Domenicali to visit the city last autumn. It is not the first time that Hyundai has been rumoured to be thinking about F1. The last time that happened was when the first plans emerged for a Korean GP in Yeongam, in the south of the country. This did not happen because the company ran into a corruption scandal, while the Korean race faded away quite quickly because the location was wrong.