NEWS & FEATURES RALLY WRC 

WRC | RD8 YPRES RALLY BELGIUM 2021

Unbelievably making its first ever appearance into the FIA World Rally Championship, the Ypres Rally, Belgium hosted round 8 of the 2021 Championship. 

Becoming the 35th Nation to hold the highest level of international rallying, Belgium and indeed Ypres is no stranger to rallying. For many years the roads of Belgium have been a playing field for European rallying and the Historic Ypres has been a battlefield not just through two great wars but for motorsport also. 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

First, held in 1965, the Ypres rally has played its part in the European Rally Championship over the years but finally was given the opportunity to test the worlds best driver on its very own challenging Asphalt roads. 

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

Despite having never hosted the WRC before, this rally still boasts an impressive list of past rally winners. From legends like Walter Röhrl, Henri Toivonen, Tony Pond and Jimmy McRae to more modern-day drivers such as Kris Meeke (in 2009) and current Hyundai team-mates, Thierry Neuville (2018 winner) and Craig Breen, who won the event last time it ran in 2019.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI THIEERY NEUVILLE

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

So with the Hyundai lineup being the most experienced in Ypres amongst the current crop drivers, heading into Belgium there was never really going to be any other contenders for the win.

20 challenging asphalt stages covering 295km were on the itinerary and the action got underway with a decent 9.8km shakedown test (Langemark) on Friday morning; where it was indeed Belgium’s very own Thierry Neuville who set the pace ahead of his Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak.

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

Current championship leader Sébastien Ogier was to be first on the road leading the cars away into the opening stage and on paper would have the best of the road conditions. However, in lacking any experience at such a rally, coupled with his comfortable championship lead, perhaps meant that he would be wearing his sensible cap in Belgium with his eyes firmly on securing the championship?

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZZO RACING OGIER

Friday afternoons opening leg featured regular stages known to the Ypres rally; with a 15km Reninge – Vleteren stage to the north of Ypres opening up the proceedings. Here is where Ott Tänak kick-started the rally with the first stage win ahead of his teammates, Thierry Neuville and Craig Breen. This first stage 1-2-3 for Hyundai was a clear early warning message to the Toyota team and was Hyundai showing their intent right from the off.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Irishman Craig Breen alongside Co-Driver Paul Nagle were out for their 4th appearance in the WRC i20n this year for Hyundai. Having competed on the Ypres some 5 times since 2013, it was a no brainer for team boss Andrea Adamo to call up the reigning Ypres winner from 2019. Despite having the tarmac ace that is Dani Sordo in his back pocket this was a huge vote of confidence in Breen from the boss.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI BREEN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

In the opening loop of the rally, Breen was delivering already, by posting two stage wins on Friday afternoon, his efforts had earned him the lead of the rally heading into the final stage of the first loop. 

But on the final 9.45km Zonnebeke stage of the afternoon, Breen dropped his game a little allowing Neuville to grab not only the stage win but to snatch the lead away from him by just 0.4 seconds heading into service before the evening repeated loop.

“Very good loop for us. Everything is under control. We could go faster, but there is no need yet – I just want to keep it smooth and clean and enjoy it.”

Thierry Neuville
WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

After service Neuville would up his pace a little and went on to dominate the evening by winning the remaining 3 stages of the opening leg of the rally. The final stage of the day was cancelled and Neuville was leading the rally by 7.6 seconds to Breen. A Hyundai 1-2-3 on the opening day of the Ypres Rally was a more than ideal start for the team.

“There were no surprises for me so far and hopefully it’s going to stay like this. For us everything was working well, there was a lot of excitement around us and I enjoyed it”

Thierry Neuville

Elsewhere M-Sport were once again having a rally to forget, Andrian Fourmaux had a huge off becoming the first victim of the deadly ditches that line the roads of Flanders and which can be very unforgiving. Totally wrecking his Fiesta WRC on only the third stage of the rally; it was a testament to the build of these modern-day rally cars, that the pair walked away unharmed. His team-mate and M-sports lead driver Gus Greensmith would also end up stuck in a ditch on SS5. Ott Tänak was laying in 6th behind a trio of Toyotas which was being led by Rally Estonia winner Kalle Rovanperä. 

In the WRC2 class, M-Sports Teemu Suninen was leading the way in the Ford Fiesta Rally2 over the morning’s loop of stages. Winning all but the opening stage of the rally, the Finn headed into the service halt with a whopping 22 second lead over Hyundai’s junior driver, Oliver Solberg.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM M-SPORT SUNINEN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Both Solberg and his teammate Jari Huttunen were competing in the all-new Hyundai i20 N Rally2 specification car and Ypres was its first real competitive outing in the WRC. Over the repeated loop of stages in the evening the pair were making steady progress despite the big gap to the class leader, Suninen upfront. 

Unfortunately for Suninen, a puncture followed by an overheating engine on the last stage (SS7 Kemmelberg) of the opening leg would see him forfeit the lead. From a 22 second advantage, he had dropped more than 10 minutes and was effectively out of contention now.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI SOLBERG

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

In that same stage, things would also not go the right way for Jari Huttunen. Despite trading times with his counterpart Solberg throughout the day, a slow puncture on this final stage of the day would also take him out of the picture. This unfortunate bit of bad luck for Huttunen gifted Solberg with a 2min 48sec lead heading into the second day of the rally.

The second leg of the rally was yet another compact day with a further 8 more stages covering a little over 119km on the roads to the south of Ypres. Craig Breen knew these stages well, they are stages that he enjoys; the opening stage of the day (SS9 Hollebeke) was a challenging one and the longest of the rally at nearly 26km.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI BREEN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Despite catching his teammate Ott Tänak in stage who suffered a puncture approx halfway in, Breen got his day off to a good start by winning this first stage of day 2. Behind Breen and Neuville, Welshman Elfyn Evans had managed to pass his Toyota teammate Kalle Rovanperä to move up into third overall. 

Evans like his teammate and championship rival, Ogier had struggled with the feeling for much of the first day, perhaps the opening morning stage of Saturday was a sign of a fresh start?

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO EVANS

Photo: Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT

Breen then followed up with a second stage win in SS10 Dikkebus, closing the gap down to leader Neuville to just 3.5 seconds. That stage was suspended due to a sizable off from Takamoto Katsuta, once again those deadly ditches catching out a relatively young driver; thankfully the crew were ok despite their Yairs being beaten up.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI BREN

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

Although Rovanperä got the better of Evans in Dikkebus, Evans managed to take his first stage win for Toyota on the next one (SS11 Watou) and was also the first to break the wall of Hyundai dominance. 

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

As the crews passed through the famous western front town of Mesen, Thierry Neuville finally found his rhythm and secured his first stage win of the day on SS12 Mesen – Middelhoek, to remain in front with a 6.8 second lead to Breen heading into the midday service.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“I am happy, but the afternoon will be as difficult, if not even more difficult with all the gravel. We are following our plan. I felt a little more comfortable because the grip was a little bit more constant. We are going to do some small changes for the afternoon loop and carry on.”

Thierry Neuville

In the WRC2 Class Teemu Suninen emerged from the overnight service halt with not only a point to prove but to carry on his fight for survival in the seat of an M-Sport car. The Finn has had a torrid season in and out of both WRC and WRC2 versions of the Ford Fiesta on selected events thus far. 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM M-SPORT SUNINEN

Photo: M-Sport WRT

After his bad luck on the opening day of the rally, by winning every stage of the morning loop on Saturday, he was at least giving himself half a fighting chance of remaining in the M-Sport camp moving forward. 

In the first of the repeated stages in the afternoon loop, the Toyotas had perhaps decided that enough was enough of the Hyundai battering. Sébastien Ogier pulled out his first stage win of the rally beating his teammate Evans by just 0.8 seconds but he was still some 45 seconds off the pace. But was this all a bit late in the day to mount any sort of challenge?

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO OGIER

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Neuville reacted in the next stage to rack up another stage win but the Toyotas of Ogier and Evans were at it again on the second run over the Watou stage. Ogier securing his second stage win once again beating Evans by the slenderest of margins, just 0.6 seconds in this one.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO OGIER

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Despite Breen keeping the pressure on Neuville, there was already talk of team orders and for him to hold the position heading into the final day of the rally. 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI BREEN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“Of course, the main target is to bring the two cars home” 

“I don’t know whether we’ll be back here again. I’ve got a big PlayStation in front of me, and I’m just trying to enjoy it.” 

“It’s been a nice day. A little bit sad this is the end of this part of the rally, but it’s a new day tomorrow. Lots of kilometres and some new stages, but I am super happy with my performance. We’ve taken another big step.”

Craig Breen

Neuville rounded off the day with the final stage win and had a 10-second lead over Breen as the event moved some 270km away from Ypres to the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes region. A final days’ action on perhaps the most famous bit of tarmac in the whole of Belgium was all that stood in front of Neuville and his first win of the year.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“Pleased to finish the day. We knew it was going to be a challenging day and there is one more to come tomorrow in a different area. The car is working well and I am happy with the performance so far.”

Thierry Neuville

Back in the WRC2 class and the afternoon loop belonged to Russian Nikolay Gryazin, after winning the very first stage of the rally in his VW Polo GTI R5, his opening day was ruined with an off on only the third stage of the event. 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM GRYAZIN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Gryazin does have the pace and by winning all of the afternoon’s stages it backed up that statement; if only he could keep it on the road perhaps he would secure more results? 

M-Sports Teemu Suninen eventually retired from the rally on SS13, the engine was overheating and he could go no further, yet another disappointing end to a rally through perhaps no real fault of his own. This goes to show that success does not only come from the driver and co-driver alone but also the team and car as well.

Out in front Oliver Solberg continued to lead the rally despite having power steering failure. He had a comfortable lead which meant that he was able to manhandle the car to the end of the day with a 3min 36sec lead.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI SOLBERG

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

“I have done 85km without power steering now, and I tell you, it’s absolutely crazy. The junctions are the worst! It’s extremely hard, I have to say. It’s a shame we lost a good position in the overall standings, but the main thing is for Hyundai to be in a good position in WRC2, and we are leading it.”

Oliver Solberg

The final day of this brand new rally to the WRC featured just four short stages centred around the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. In recent years a rallycross circuit was shoehorned into it for the World RX and this along with the many service roads around the GP race track featured in the stages. 

Rally leader Neuville entered the final day with a 10 second lead with his Hyundai teammate Craig Breen behind him in second, the pair would not be concerned for any challenges from behind as their closest rival, Elfyn Evans was some 42 seconds away from them.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Kalle Rovanperä opened up the final day with the first stage win and Ott Tänak took the next two. As the morning progressed Breen kept up his part of the team agreement and held position keeping his i20 to the middle of the road. 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO ROVANPERA

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

In typical Ott Tänak fashion, he rounded off his less than average rally with the final power stage win, to take 6th overall. Maybe that is being a bit harsh on the Estonian as he did indeed pick up a puncture on day 2 but taking that out of the equation he wasn’t able to match the pace of his Hyundai teammates anyway.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI TANAK

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Finishing 5th overall with just two stage wins to this name, Sébastien Ogier struggled on this event, of which he had zero experience. He does however remain on course towards the bigger goal, and he departs Belgium still leading the drivers’ standings. The Frenchman finished behind his teammate and up until now, his only real championship rival, Eflyn Evans.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO OGIER

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Evans appear to have hit a little bit of a dip in the season, losing the third spot on the first stage of the final day hasn’t helped him keep up with Ogier in the standings, in fact, it has now allowed Neuville to level with him.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO EVANS

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Kalle Rovanperä came into Belgium on a high off of the back of his maiden WRC win on the gravel of Estonia. Asphalt is not the young Finn’s favoured surface so finishing Ypres a new rally on the podium will be more than satisfying for him, it’s just a shame that it was at the expense of his Toyota teammate Evans.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM TOYOTA GAZOO ROVONPERA

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Once again the man to impress was the Hyundai part-timer Craig Breen. On a rally that he knows well perhaps it was expected for the Irishman to perform here in Belgium? 

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI BREEN

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Nevertheless, he took the fight to his teammate Neuville who was in his own back garden and delivered the all-important team 1-2 that Hyundai so desperately needed following their abysmal run of rallies.

Neuville entered the final Power Stage with a 24-second lead and was able to cruise around the final circuit stage to take his first victory of the year in front of his home crowd and alongside his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI NEUVILLE

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

It has taken the Belgian some 8 months to reach the top step of the podium this year, with so many challenges and lows along the way. With the potential of only four more rallies this year, he does now join Elfyn Evans in joint second in the driver’s standings but could the writing already be in the history books for this season?

The final day in the WRC2 class was all a bit of a letdown really, overnight rally leader Oliver Solberg who suffered power steering failure on the previous day would progress no further. Electrical gremlins on his all-new Hyundai i20 N Rally 2 car was perhaps not the way the team would liked to have showcased their new product to the world.

WRC YPRES RALLY BELGIUM HYUNDAI HUTTUNEN

Photo: Hyundai Motorsport

Solberg’s exit left only two super rallying competitors in the class, his Hyundai Junior teammate Jari Huttenun finished in first having suffered the lesser time loss compared to that of Nikolay Gryazin in the VW Polo GTI R5. With WRC2 title contender Mads Ostberg choosing to sit this one out in the commentary team for WRC All Live, the Norwegian must have been kicking himself at the missed opportunity to bag some serious points.

Sébastien Ogier (162 pts) has a 38 point lead in the drivers’ standings ahead of Elfyn Evans and Thierry Neuville who are both level on 124. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT (348) still hold a decent lead in the manufacturer standings, 41 points ahead of Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT (307).

Next up is not only a return to Gravel but is the long-awaited return of the legendary and iconic Acropolis Rally Greece (9th-12th September). Known for being a rough rally, Hyundai will no doubt be dreading this event given their recent run of suspension failures this season.

Words By Andy Cook | Feature Photo: Hyundai Motorsport WRT

Related posts