Sat 13 Aug 2022

Rally rewind: Belgium 2021

Ypres Rally Belgium’s FIA World Rally Championship debut arrived a season later than intended due to the pandemic but proved worth the wait. We reflect on a frantic Flanders fight ahead of next week’s second edition.

1. Home-hero Neuville in charge
It was dominant. It was controlled. It was ruthless.

Walk around the Grote Markt service park in Ypres’ beautiful town centre before the start and there were few dissenters to the thought that Belgium’s Thierry Neuville would deliver a victory he and the home fans longed for.

Hyundai Motorsport team-mates Ott Tänak and Craig Breen both led briefly, but once Neuville edged ahead in Friday afternoon’s opening leg, the writing was on the wall.

He and Breen tussled until midway through Saturday morning, by which time the two i20 World Rally Cars were more than half a minute ahead of the battling Toyota Gazoo Racing trio of Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanperä and Sébastien Ogier.

With a 1-2 at stake and a significant boost to Neuville’s championship challenge on the cards, the fight was nullified and he eased through the final day at the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, close to home in the Ardennes.

2. Wydaeghe’s delight
While Neuville celebrated his 14th WRC win, standing on the top step of a WRC podium was a new experience for co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe.

It should have happened almost a couple of months earlier when the pair led Safari Rally Kenya, only for their suspension to collapse on the final day and pitch them into retirement.

Fitting, then, that the win finally came on the Flanders roads of north-west Belgium from where Wydaeghe hails.

“Maybe it’s part of the destiny,” he smiled afterwards. “I strongly believe that things come as they should come.

“We are very proud also to share this moment with the Belgian fans. Since the beginning of the year we have had a lot of support from them, so it was nice to celebrate together and to celebrate our co-operation with the victory in Ypres was something wonderful.”

3. Toyota’s consolation scrap
That this was Hyundai’s weekend was emphasised by the fact that Neuville, Breen and Tänak together won 15 of the 19 stages.

After a puncture relegated Tänak and ruined Hyundai’s hopes of a top-three lockout, Toyota’s quartet were left to fight among themselves for the final podium step.

The four-car train was whittled down to two when first Takamoto Katsuta crashed and then Ogier punctured. That left Rovanperä and Evans. The young Finn finally took the spoils after trading places with the Welshman throughout the event.

4. Belgium bites
Ypres came with a reputation for punishing mistakes. Big roadside ditches swallow wayward cars which stray offline and huge wooden electricity poles are no less forgiving. Several failed to heed the warnings.

Katsuta and debutant co-driver Keaton Williams escaped unhurt when they hit a bump in a fast corner which threw their Yaris into a ditch. It pirouetted through the air and hit a pole before a violent landing.

Adrien Fourmaux exited after clipping a bank and launching his Ford Fiesta into a huge airborne spin. M-Sport Ford team-mate Gus Greensmith and Pierre Louis-Loubet dropped their cars into ditches too.

5. Spa oasis
Spa-Francorchamps is one of the great venues on the Formula 1 calendar and its legendary corners graced the rally in two final-day tests.

In a classic section, drivers plunged downhill into the fast Eau Rouge bend before blasting uphill through the equally quick Raidillon right-hander – much to Neuville’s delight.

“I really enjoyed the part on the race track as the grip was really high and you have to adapt your driving as our cars are very soft and high and groaning a little bit too much. It makes you slide at high speed. It was very fun,” he enthused.

• 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

Video: Ypres Rally Belgium 2021 review
Video: Ypres Rally Belgium 2021 winner special
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