Local hero Thierry Neuville produced a gritty comeback drive to head up a Hyundai Motorsport 1-2 after Friday’s opening leg of WRC Ypres Rally Belgium.
Just 2.5s separated Neuville and teammate Ott Tanak at the end of a frenetic Friday on treacherous asphalt lanes in the Flanders region of Belgium.
Neuville’s day got off to a bad start when he dropped more than 10 seconds with a costly overshoot in the first of the day’s eight stages, and the situation showed signs of worsening as he fought with his car’s setup throughout the morning.
The Belgian ace, who won in Ypres last year on the event’s FIA World Rally Championship debut, complained that the differential settings on his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 were causing the brakes to lock up under braking — not a good situation for a rally defined by its countless hard-braking junctions — and he sat only third overall, trailing Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Elfyn Evans by 8.8s, at the mid-leg service halt.
After making several setup tweaks, Neuville emerged from service with renewed confidence in the car. He and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe stormed to fastest times on all four of the afternoon’s stages — leapfrogging Tanak and Evans in the process.
“It’s been a whole different afternoon in terms of the handling with the car,” Neuville explained. “I am so much happier now. OK, I still feel like I have seen some areas where we can improve and find a bit more speed, but overall we can be very happy with our afternoon.”
Coming into Friday, rain had been expected in the afternoon. But while some included multiple wet-weather tires in their afternoon allocations, Neuville opted for dry-weather rubber and trusted his weather and gravel crews to give him accurate and up-to-date information on the stage conditions.
“Our gravel crew has done a great job, very precise information and I felt comfortable to follow their information,” he said, “That’s very important on a day like this.”
Aside from a few setup niggles of his own, Tanak’s day went without drama. Fresh off his win on the super-fast gravel of Rally Finland, the Estonian quickly dialed into asphalt mode, never strayed outside the top-three stage times all day and held the runner-up spot from the second test onward.
The same couldn’t be said for Toyota star Evans, who led for most of the leg after teammate and runaway championship leader Kalle Rovanpera rolled his GR Yaris Rally1 into retirement on the day’s second stage (see video below).
It was the 21-year-old Finn’s first significant mistake of the season, the winner of five of the season’s eight rounds held so far conceding that he’d been overly optimistic in his pacenotes on the speed he could take the corner that claimed him. His Toyota team expects to repair the car overnight so that the Finn can rejoin tomorrow and target Power Stage bonus points on Sunday’s final leg.
Evans was forced to bolt a single wet-weather tire onto his Yaris after damaging one of his slicks on the day’s sixth test. As a result, his reduced performance on the dry roads aided Neuville’s charge into the lead, and a 10-second time penalty for a late check-in compounded the Welshman’s frustrations.
“We lost one of our slick tires and had to use a rain tire, which was obviously not ideal in these conditions,” he explained. “The penalty was no big issue — just a minor error — but one penalty in four years is not bad.”
Tire choice was a key talking point for the second loop. Dark clouds threatened downpours but — as Neuville and Tanak’s weather crews had predicted — heavy rain never arrived. While the leading trio carried tire combinations more suited to dry conditions, the rest of the field dropped time with combinations chosen in the hope of wet weather.
Toyota’s Espekka Lappi joked he was “leading the class for the wrong tires” and brought his GR Yaris home 23.6s adrift of third-placed Evans. Lappi had 18.8s in hand over M-Sport Ford man Craig Breen, who’d also opted for three wet-weather tires and three dry, but held fifth overall in his Puma Rally1 despite an overshoot early in the day.
Breen’s M-Sport Ford teammate Gus Greensmith ended the day more than half a minute further back in sixth, ahead of Oliver Solberg, who battled gearbox niggles on his Hyundai.
Adrien Fourmaux — also driving a Puma — had been challenging for a top-four position early in the day, but was caught out by a localized rain shower on the fourth stage. He plummeted down the order and finished the day in eighth overall.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Stefan Lefebvre made the most of his experience of Belgian rallying to top the ultra-competitive category after the opening leg.
Lefebvre is French, but has been contesting — and currently leads — the Belgian championship this season with his Citroen C3 Rally2.
His expertise on the tricky asphalt roads came into its own as he arrived back at Ypres 15.5s clear of WRC2 points leader Andreas Mikkelsen’s Skoda Fabia Evo.
Despite not starting a WRC round since Croatia in April, Lefebvre was quickly into the groove. He seized the top spot in the second stage of the day and extended his buffer with a clean sweep of fastest times over the afternoon.
“It was a very good day for us,” beamed Lefebvre, who sits ninth in the overall event times. “The pace is really good and we avoided any mistakes. It’s much easier to jump in the car on the Belgian roads when you are already doing the [national] championship. After the tests for Ypres, we changed almost nothing, so it’s definitely a good help in that respect.”
Saturday’s second leg is extremely compact and squeezes eight more treacherous stages, adding up to 84.4 competitive miles, into a route that stays close to the rally’s host city of Ypres.
WRC Ypres Rally Belgium, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 49m50.4s
2 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2.5s
3 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +13.7s
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +37.3s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +56.1s
6 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m34.5s
7 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m01.2s
8 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m09.5s
9 Stephane Lefebvre/Xavier Portier (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +3m41.4s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2) +3m56.9s
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.