Ott Tanak inherited a surprise lead at WRC Ypres Rally Belgium when long-time leader and Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville crashed into retirement on Saturday afternoon.
The Estonian will carry an 8.2s advantage over Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Elfyn Evans into Sunday’s final leg after local hero Neuville’s rally unraveled in the penultimate stage of the day.
Tanak, driving a Hyundai i20 N, briefly took charge after Saturday opening Reninge stage, but was quickly swept aside by Neuville, who re-established his lead as a rear differential issue hampered Tanak’s progress during the morning.
After pulling 17.2s clear of his struggling teammate, 2021 Ypres winner Neuville looked all but set for a repeat victory on his home FIA World Rally Championship round — but the day was turned on its head four miles into the Wijtschate stage when the 34-year-old Belgian understeered into a deep ditch on the outside of a left-hand corner (see video below).
Spectators were quickly on scene to extract the car and their hero from the ditch, and Neuville briefly continued, but was forced to pull over just a half-mile further down the road with terminal damage.
Neuville’s exit means Tanak is on course for his second-consecutive victory, having triumphed just a few weeks ago on the super-fast gravel of the WRC’s Rally Finland.
“Obviously in the morning we were struggling with the transmission, but at lunchtime we were able to change it and in the afternoon it was working,” Tanak said. “It was just a different setting and it took me some time to adapt to it, but in the end I got used to it and started to trust it more.
“Tomorrow will be far from easy — I think it will be a big push in the morning. Elfyn is doing a good job and it will not be easy for him, but let’s see. It’s still a relatively long day tomorrow.”
Back at service, Neuville explained he was simply caught out by a patch of loose gravel which had been pulled onto the road after his gravel note crew, whose role it is to report conditions and any hazards to their driver, had driven through.
“It was basically full of dirt from the cars in front,” said the disappointed Belgian. “We had nothing in the pace notes, and we weren’t aware it would be so slippery, so we got caught by surprise and understeered into the ditch.”
Toyota’s Evans was able to close in on Tanak during the morning loop in what was then the battle for second, but lost ground later in the day once his rival had made his transmission changes at the mid-leg service. He inherited second place with Neuville’s demise, and ended the day more than one minute clear of his GR Yaris Rally1 teammate, Esapekka Lappi, who filled the final podium spot after enjoying a drama-free day.
Almost two minutes further back in fourth overall was Hyundai young gun Oliver Solberg. The 20-year-old Swede was locked into a back-and-forth duel with M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux, who ended the leg 14.3s behind after being landed with a 20s time penalty for arriving late to the start of the penultimate stage.
Both drivers moved up the order early in the day when Formaux’s teammate, Craig Breen, who had been running fifth, rolled his Puma Rally 1 into retirement after overcooking a left-hander at Dikkebus.
After plummeting down the order with a transmission glitch on Friday, Takamoto Katsuta fought back to take sixth overall in his GR Yaris. It wasn’t an easy day for the 29-year-old Japanese driver as a hybrid unit issue left him intermittently lacking extra boost.
Adding to M-Sport Ford’s woes, Gus Greensmith was more than 18 minutes adrift of the leaders after hemorrhaging time in the morning. The Briton’s Puma left the road on the day’s second stage and he had to limp through two tests with a broken rear brake rotor.
The attrition among the Rally1 crews meant drivers from the WRC2 class, the second tier of international rallying, packed the rest of the top 10 positions. Stephane Lefebvre edged one step closer to WRC2 success after extending his advantage over Saturday’s stages.
The Frenchman — a regular in the Belgian national series — carried a comfortable 15.5s class lead into Saturday’s penultimate leg, but he was caught napping as WRC2 points leader Andreas Mikkelsen sliced that deficit to just 5.9s after two stages.
Wake-up call duly answered, Lefebvre cranked it up a notch in his Citroen C3 Rally2, taking fastest time on five of the six remaining stages to rebuild his advantage.
By day’s end he was in an even better position than he’d started in, heading back to the overnight halt some 25.7s clear of Mikkelsen’s Skoda Fabia Evo, as well as holding seventh in the overall standings.
Another French Citroen driver, Yohan Rossel, ended the day third in WRC2, with Belgium’s Gregoire Munster fourth in class and 10th overall — the highest-placed home entry after Neuville’s exit.
Sunday’s closing leg stays close to host city Ypres. Two passes through Watou (7.68 miles) and Kemmelburg (8.27 miles) are punctuated by a 20-minute service, with the second run through Kemmelberg forming the rally-closing, bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage.
WRC Ypres Rally Belgium, leading positions after Day Two, SS16
1 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 1h55m55.2s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +8.2s
3 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m09.8s
4 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m51.6s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +3m05.9s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +5m39.3s
7 Stephane Lefebvre/Xavier Portier (Citroen C3 – WRC2 leader) +7m46.2s
8 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2) +8m11.9s
9 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +8m50.9s
10 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Hyundai i20 N Rally2 – WRC2) +9m12.1s
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