The two drivers with the most experience of the narrow asphalt farm lanes through Flanders’ fields opened a sizeable margin at the front of the entry in their Hyundai Motorsport i20 World Rally Cars. Team-mate Ott Tänak ensured a perfect start for the team in third.
Tänak was fastest through the opening Reninge – Vleteren speed test, but the Estonian overshot a junction in the following Westouter – Boeschepe stage to allow Neuville and Breen to duel it out for supremacy.
Breen, rally winner in 2019, was quickest in Westouter and the following Kemmelberg to open a 1.6sec lead. Neuville, victor in 2018, won Zonnebeke to overturn the deficit and return to mid-leg service in Ypres on top.
Neuville’s only problem was a bizarre one. His trademark spectacles were slipping down his face, disrupting his concentration but clearly not slowing his pace.
“I’m comfortable and driving my own rhythm,” said Neuville. “The speed is quite high, so as soon as you slide a bit wide you are off. Everything is under control. We could go faster but there is no need yet, I just want to keep it smooth and clean.”
The roads became progressively slippery as the early starters dragged dirt onto the surface as they cut corners, and that hampered Breen, who was seventh in the order.
Tänak, driving in Ypres for the first time, struggled to pick out the direction of the road between the crop-filled fields and bushes. He also found it difficult to judge the grip on the constantly-changing surface and dropped 16.4sec behind Neuville.
Elfyn Evans was just 0.8sec behind in the leading Toyota Yaris, the Welshman frustrated by his start. “It's not bad, but we didn’t come here to do ‘not bad’. That’s the bottom line. We want the best result possible, and I think we can improve in some areas,” he mused.
Video: Renties Ypres Rally Belgium shakedown
Team-mate Kalle Rovanperä was fifth with FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier already half a minute off the lead in sixth. The Frenchman lost valuable seconds with a front left puncture in the final few kilometres of Kemmelberg.
Takamoto Katsuta was seventh in another Yaris, almost a minute clear of Pierre-Louis Loubet, who missed the same junction as Tänak. WRC2 leader Teemu Suninen and WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel completed the leaderboard.
It was a disastrous opening for M-Sport Ford. Adrien Fourmaux retired in Kemmelberg after clipping a bank and launching his Fiesta into a huge airborne spin and Gus Greensmith exited just 200 metres after the start of the next stage when he dropped his car into a ditch.
• Full coverage from Renties Ypres Rally Belgium is 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.