Thierry Neuville travels to Ypres Rally Belgium this weekend looking to end his 2022 FIA World Rally Championship title-winning drought with victory on his home tarmac.
Twelve months ago, Neuville picked up an emotional win after leading from start to finish in Belgium’s WRC debut. But as the all-new hybrid era of the WRC kicks off, the Hyundai Motorsport driver’s 2022 campaign has been marred by disappointment as the Korean manufacturer struggles to find the consistency and reliability needed to challenge the Toyota Gazoo Racing team. Two podiums at the start of the year were his best results to date, so the desire – and the pressure – to score a big result with his i20 N Rally1 on roads he knows well is immense.
Heading into this ninth round of 13, the 34-year-old from St. Vith sits third in the WRC standings, but leads Toyota championship leader Kalle Rovanpera by 95 points. If there was ever a place for Neuville to try and close that gap and sustain his long-term title aspirations, it’s here. And with a maximum of 30 points up for grabs on each of the remaining rallies, that can only mean winning.
Neuville, a five-time runner-up in the WRC drivers’ standings but never champion, made six starts at Ypres before his promotion to the WRC last year, making him the most experienced driver of any top driver. He knows exactly what it takes to be quick on the narrow farm lanes of the Flemish region that make up the three-day match, August 19-21.
Stages are littered with sharp turns and lined with drainage ditches and telegraph poles. Large corner cuts mean that mud and debris will be washed onto the asphalt, making conditions progressively dirtier.
“It’s probably the event we’re most looking forward to this season,” Neuville said. “I have great memories here and can’t wait to be back.
“We are finally back on the asphalt after a series of difficult gravel rallies, and we hope to find the way to victory. There is only one objective: to repeat our victory of last year.
As expected, Neuville put down an early marker in Thursday’s official pre-rally shakedown, setting a fastest time of 3m44.4s to edge Rovanpera a useful 0.6s, with Hyundai team-mate Oliver Solberg 0.7s off. more on the 4.56 mile Nieuwkerke test. arrange.
Neuville and young Swede Solberg are joined in Hyundai’s three-car i20 N Rally1 squad by Ott Tanak, who is fresh off a stunning victory in the high-speed Rally Finland and holds second place in WRC points. The trio are keen to wipe out Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 88-point lead in the constructors’ championship.
Rovanpera is joined in a four-car GR Yaris Rally1 attack by Welshman Elfyn Evans, fellow countryman Finn Esapekka Lappi and Japanese development driver Takamoto Katsuta.
With five wins from eight starts in 2022, 21-year-old Rovanpera is on course to become the youngest WRC champion in history. He could seal the title this weekend, but that’s unlikely. Even if Rovanpera takes 25 points for the win and grabs a maximum of five bonus points from the rally’s closing Wolf Power Stage, it will depend on both Tanak and Neuville having a disastrous event and scoring next to nothing.
“I feel good about going to Belgium,” said Rovanpera, whose points lead means he will be the first car on the stages for Friday’s opening leg. “If it’s dry, we saw last year that it could be a bit dusty for the first cars, but if it’s wet it should be perfect for us to be the first on the road.”
Former Ypres winner – albeit in pre-WRC days – Craig Breen leads the M-Sport Ford charge alongside Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux in a trio of Puma Rally1 machines. Sixth in points, the Irish Breen will seek to use his experience of Ypres to restore momentum to a campaign which ended in 30th and 32nd places wasted by accident in the last two events.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen is back in action after skipping Rally Finland in one of his seven tally rounds. In five starts so far, the Norwegian has picked up three wins and two engine-related DNFs in his Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo, and narrowly leads absentee Kajetan Kajetanowicz in points. But the Polish driver has only started four rounds so far, meaning he will have three more points-scoring opportunities after Ypres, compared to Mikkelsen’s only remaining start, which will be the Acropolis. Rally Greece.
“We had a good test last week and I feel that the Skoda performs particularly well on these types of roads,” says Mikkelsen. “For us to win the championship, I think we have to try to win in Ypres, and also in Greece – there is no other choice.
“Kajetanowicz is probably going to do Japan and New Zealand, so he could potentially have two easy wins there. But our retirements mean that, come what may, we will already have a zero in our total tally. So my goal this week is very simple: we have to win.
To do that, Mikkelsen needs to beat a strong WRC2 field that includes Yohan Rossel. The Frenchman returns for his fifth event of the season after a three-rally absence, but is still fourth in points after two wins at the start of the season in his Citroën C3.
Also watch out for Belgian veteran Freddy Loix. The 51-year-old WRC veteran has driven a limited WRC2 program in a self-registered Skoda, but his astonishing 11 Ypres Rally victories in his pre-WRC days mean he shouldn’t be counted out.
The WRC Ypres Rally Belgium action kicks off on Friday morning August 19, with eight mostly short stages covering a competitive 60.29 miles on the fast and furious first leg. The action never strays more than 15 miles from the host city of Ypres.
Eight more legs and a competitive 82.78 miles make up Saturday’s equally frenetic second leg, before two runs through Watou and Kemmelberg make up Sunday’s 31.90-mile finale, with the second run through Kemmelberg as bonus points paying Wolf Power Stage.
The question is, after these 20 stages and 174.97 miles of competition, will local hero Neuville step onto the top step of the podium as the new winner of Ypres Rally Belgium?
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