Surprisingly, it’s not Thierry Neuville. Nor is it his co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe. In fact, it’s none of the current crop of FIA World Rally Championship megastars.
It’s a man who started 89 WRC rounds and finished on the podium three times, twice as runner-up. More importantly in this part of the world, it’s the man who won Renties Ypres Rally Belgium 11 times. It’s Freddy Loix.
In 1998, the world was very much at Freddy’s feet. He started four WRC rounds in a private Toyota Corolla WRC and finished third in Portugal and second in Catalunya. The scrabble for his signature was won by Mitsubishi and he spent the next three years with Andrew Cowan’s Ralliart squad.
But he wouldn’t stand on the WRC podium again. What went wrong for the likeable Loix, who looked for all the world like he was ready to step from the Corolla directly to the winners’ circle?
“The Mitsubishi wasn’t an easy car to drive,” said Loix. “It was bigger than the Toyota I’d been used to and it felt different. The Corolla drove more like a front-wheel drive car and that was how I liked it. The Mitsubishi wasn’t like that.
“From my side, you can be a very good driver, but if the car doesn’t suit you, you can change the set-up, you can work on these things, but it’s always going to be a struggle.”
Loix’s manager was Alain Penasse, the same man who’s running this week’s Renties Ypres Rally Belgium. Penasse is open enough to admit he and Loix might have gone in the wrong direction with Mitsubishi.
“Like Freddy said, the car didn’t really suit him at Mitsubishi,” said Penasse. “He was there with Tommi [Mäkinen] and I think his confidence went a little bit upside down.
“I think Mitsubishi was very much a Finnish-oriented team and everybody apart from Tommi was struggling to drive that car a little bit. But when you look at the speed he had in Toyota, it was clear what he was capable of.”
Video: Memorable Belgian WRC moments
Switching to the smaller dimensions of Hyundai’s Accent WRC re-confirmed Loix’s speed.
Loix said: “The Hyundai wasn’t as fast as the Mitsubishi, but I was still able to set the same times in the Accent. I made fastest times in Sweden, in Greece and I remember in Australia as well – the Hyundai suited my style and I was able to drive it more like the Corolla. I don’t look back so much about this, I’m about the future.”
After a brief spell at Peugeot, Loix stepped back from the WRC into what Penasse describes as his second career.
Having won four straight Ypres Rallies through 1996 to 1999, Loix returned to the podium’s top step in 2010. In a mixture of S2000 and R5 cars, he won Ypres seven times in nine years. Fond memories for the King of Ypres.
“They were nice times,” said Loix. “It was always a really special event and it will be again this week. It’s fantastic to have the WRC coming to Belgium.”
Surely the chance to take on the best in the world was tempting for Loix?
“I’m just too busy,” he said. “I run an Aston Martin dealership in Brussels now and I don’t have the time to compete on the event. But I will be there, of course I will be there.
“I’m helping two young Belgian drivers – Sébastien Bedoret and Niels Reynvoet – so I will be there to support. But I will also be there to spectate and to enjoy the atmosphere for what’s going to be a very big week for Belgian rallying.”
• Full coverage from Renties Ypres Rally Belgium will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park.
Headline photograph by DPPI/Gregory Lenormand