The Hyundai i20 N driver edged championship leader Kalle Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris by just six-tenths of a second, while Yaris man Elfyn Evans tied for third with i20 youngster Oliver Solberg. The pair were another seven-tenths further back.
Localised rainfall at the beginning of the session served up the perfect curtain-raiser for what lies ahead this weekend.
Grip was changeable in the 7.34km Nieuwkerke test just south of Ypres, although conditions did become more consistent as the combination of asphalt, concrete and cobbled roads started to dry.
Neuville set the pace on the opening run but Rovanperä jumped ahead on the second pass. The Belgian driver moved to within one-tenth of his rival immediately afterwards before posting the benchmark time on his fourth and final pass.
After triumphing here in 2021, Neuville is desperate to defend his Ypres crown. He is yet to win a rally in the hybrid-powered era and insisted things aren’t going to be easy.
"It's going to be a tricky event,” Neuville said. “We already had changing conditions in shakedown, so that's what we can expect for the weekend. We need to have a clean, clever drive through and try to enjoy the weekend.
Craig Breen - another former Ypres winner - took his M-Sport Ford Puma to fifth overall. He was 1.6sec down on Neuville and outpaced Toyota’s Espekka Lappi by a mere 0.1sec.
Adrien Fourmaux was seventh in another Puma ahead of Secto Rally Finland winner Ott Tänak, who drives an i20. Takamoto Katsuta almost turned the wrong way at a junction after a pace note miscommunication but recovered to take ninth overall, while Gus Greensmith rounded off the top 10.
The leading times were:
|1.||Thierry NEUVILLE||Hyundai i20 N||3min 44.4sec|
|2.||Kalle ROVANPERÄ||Toyota GR Yaris||+0.6sec|
|=3.||Elfyn EVANS||Toyota GR Yaris||+1.3sec|
|=3.||Oliver SOLBERG||Hyundai i20 N||+1.3sec|
|5.||Craig BREEN||Ford Puma||+1.6sec|
|6.||Esapekka LAPPI||Toyota GR Yaris||+1.7sec|
|7.||Adrien FOURMAUX||Ford Puma||+2.2sec|
|8.||Ott TÄNAK||Hyundai i20 N||+2.4sec|
|9.||Takamota KATSUTA||Toyota GR Yaris||+4.0sec|
|10.||Gus GREENSMITH||Ford Puma||+5.2sec|
• Full coverage from 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.