After months of gravel rallies, the World Rally Championship finally returns to asphalt this week. But will a change in surface bring a change in fortunes for the competitive order?
Hyundai arrives in Belgium on the back of a somewhat surprising win in Finland. Much of that success was put down to Ott Tänak’s individual brilliance on the fast, flowing gravel roads surrounding Jyväskylä. It’ll be hoping for the same again in Ypres with Thierry Neuville.
But will Neuville really be the driver to beat on his home turf? DirtFish’s form guide may have some clues:
#2 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF, 13th, 10th
Best Ypres result: DNF (2021)
Finland was a kick in the teeth for Solberg. On the first corner of the first ‘real’ stage of the rally, he crashed out. He was crestfallen. It will be hard to do any worse in Belgium.
Last year his pace aboard the Hyundai i20 N Rally2 was decent. Ultimately Teemu Suninen had the better of him before the Ford Fiesta Rally2’s engine started to croak but Solberg was the closest driver to WRC3 leader Yohan Rossel on pace thereafter.
Alas, a WRC2 win went begging on Sunday morning with electrical problems, having spent most of Saturday wrestling his i20 through the stages without power-steering.
Solberg said after his Finland crash that he had a choice between finishing last of the Rally1 cars or pushing on and trying to be fast. With only two points finishes on the board so far this year, perhaps the former option could be a sensible choice.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd, 6th, 44th
Best Ypres result: DNF (2014)
Lappi’s season is finally back on track after a wobbly patch in the middle of the year.
His Croatia retirement, where he cut a corner and hit a boulder, was easily avoidable. His crash from the lead in Italy was somewhat unlucky, hitting a dip in the road that hadn’t been so prominent on the recce. And in Estonia he wasn’t quite on the pace of his Toyota team-mates. But a podium in Finland – even with a dramatic rollover late on – has gotten his season back on track.
He’s been to Ypres once before, during his title-winning European Rally Championship season back in 2014. Piloting a Škoda Fabia S2000, he’d been one of the few drivers to challenge the otherwise dominant Benelux contingent, though ultimately crashed out of third place after a big rear-left impact.
His hopes of another podium way well depend on how much it rains. Lappi starts behind most of the championship regulars in the running order – potentially causing problems with mud being dragged onto the line from the famously deep corner cuts, along with gravel.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st, 3rd, DNF
Best Ypres result: 6th (2021)
It’s strange to look back on the start of Tänak’s 2022 and remember how much of a disaster it was. His year began by planting his i20 N Rally1 into a rockface in the Alps north of Monaco, followed by a hybrid problem that forced him to retire in Sweden.
Fast forward six months and he has two wins and another two podiums in his last six events. He outscored Elfyn Evans, who had a similarly torrid start to the year, by nine points over that same period.
His form in Belgium is not quite as stellar. Hyundai dominated in Ypres last year but Tänak, who eventually dropped to sixth with a puncture, was the slowest of the three i20 Coupe WRCs before his tire trouble struck.
If a Hyundai is going to pip Toyota to the top step again, it’s probably not Tänak that will be expected to deliver that upset. But you never know with the form he’s been in of late.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th, 5th, 41st
Best Ypres result: 1st (2021, 2018)
No driver has anything close to the level of experience of Ypres Rally Belgium in the Rally1 field as Thierry Neuville. This will be his 10th appearance on an event he’s won twice – along with a victory in the ‘Masters’ class for WRC machinery in 2019.
So long as the car holds together – and based on recent events, Hyundai’s reliability woes from earlier in the year are finally starting to tail off a little – Neuville will be favorite to take another Ypres win.
After briefly running behind team-mates Tänak and Craig Breen in the first few stages of last year’s edition, Neuville took control from Friday afternoon onwards, gradually easing ahead of Breen to wrap up the win.
Toyota’s trio of Yarises followed behind the Hyundai duo and were a clear second-best in Belgium last time – but with the new Rally1 cars in town, it’s hard to judge whether a repeat Neuville win could be on the cards.
#16 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 18th, 7th, 15th
Best Ypres result: DNF (2021)
After a horrendous start to the season, Fourmaux has managed a couple of clean, mostly uneventful rallies, bar a steering arm failure following a greedy cut in Finland.
His short spell in Ypres last year was anything but uneventful. Fourmaux had what was until then probably the biggest crash of his career (since trumped by flying off the side of a cliff on the Monte earlier this year), the rear of his Fiesta WRC stepping out and clipping a bank at speed, sending him into a violent high-speed roll.
That huge accident happened only three stages into last year’s edition, so Fourmaux’s experience in Ypres at racing speed is almost non-existent despite being here last year. A first top-five finish of the year does not seem particularly likely to happen here.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 6th, 5th, 3rd
Best Ypres result: DNF (2021)
Like Fourmaux, Katsuta was also shaken up by an almighty accident in Ypres last year. The difference was he’d managed to complete the first day’s worth of stages before doing so.
Coming into a left-hander flat out, Katsuta’s Yaris WRC hit a bump that sent him wide and into a back, catapulting him into a roll that put him out of the rally.
His Ypres crash last year was the start of a miserable run of form in the latter half of that season, though it’s all change in 2022. Another Kenya podium has been complimented with the second-most consistent finishing record behind championship leader Kalle Rovanperä’s 100% run.
That said, Katsuta fears he’s not as strong on asphalt compared to gravel despite his circuit racing origins. Perhaps a podium challenge will have to wait for another rally.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th, 2nd, 2nd
Best Ypres result: 4th (2021)
It’s now approaching a whole calendar year since Elfyn Evans last scored a WRC win – and on paper Ypres doesn’t really look like the place to change that.
Evans’ asphalt form in the Yaris Rally1 remains a bit of a mystery. He was faster than Rovanperä on the Monte until he slid off and got stuck; in Croatia his rally never really got going thanks to two punctures in the opening four stages.
But on Ypres last year, with the Toyotas a distinct second-best to the Hyundais, Evans capitulated third place on the final day as his pace sunk, giving the final podium position to Rovanperä. On the plus side, none of those roads are on the itinerary this year, with the rally not traveling to the Spa region this time.
It would be unwise to suggest he’s not a strong contender for a podium. But based on Rovanperä’s 2022 form across the board and Neuville’s track record in Ypres, he’s definitely not odds on for victory either.
#42 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 32nd, 30th, 6th
Best Ypres result: 1st (2019)
Ypres was the middle event in Breen’s rich run of form with Hyundai last season, in which he scored three podiums in three outings during his seat-share with Dani Sordo.
Breen’s historical form in Ypres is excellent. In addition to being Neuville’s biggest threat for the win last year, he won it himself in 2019 with a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and has competed here five times in total, thanks to his multi-year stint with Peugeot in the mid-2010s.
His form of late in the WRC has been anything but excellent, however. Estonia and Finland, the other rallies on which he scored podiums during that purple patch with Hyundai last year, were expected to deliver silverware. Instead they ended with two crashes.
It would be a surprise to see Breen running anywhere other than the podium positions, so long as the car holds up and he doesn’t make another rally-ending mistake.
#44 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th, DNF, 16th
Best Ypres result: 47th (2021)
Greensmith is another one who’s asphalt form is hard to pin down leading up to Ypres.
It all looked so promising after Monte, where he’d taken his first ever WRC stage win by usupring both Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier on the timesheets. But Monte is, of course, not an asphalt rally in the true sense of the word. Croatia wasn’t quite as strong, even taking into account the two punctures that forced him to retire.
Out on the roads between the fields in Western Belgium last year, Greensmith’s pace wasn’t particularly strong either, unable to keep up with any of the Hyundais or Toyotas. He also went off the road on the first day.
Muscling his way into the top five overall is probably a tricky but sensible target.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd, 1st, 1st
Best Finland result: 3rd (2021)
Last year Rovanperä spent much of Ypres Rally battling with team-mate Evans for third place – a battle he eventually won. That’s awfully similar to 2022, where every time he’s gone head-to-head with Evans for the win he’s come out on top.
What Rovanperä may need to be wary of is his road position. Last year Ogier complained on the first day he had very little grip and, sure enough, he was down in sixth after opening the road all day, behind all the Hyundais and the other senior-team Toyotas.
His pace on asphalt appears to be just as good as it is on gravel – after he ironed the setup woes out of his GR Yaris in the early phase of the Monte, he went on to win the powerstage, then was in a league of his own in Croatia.
Without a puncture and the Sunday weather drama, it would have been an easy win rather than a knife-edge finish.