The short Mesen-Middelhoek stage ended the Saturday morning loop of the Ypres Rally, and Thierry Neuville stretched his legs over the 4.96-mile test to extend his rally lead to 6.8 seconds over Hyundai World Rally Championship team-mate Craig Breen.
The M-Sport Ford Fiesta of Gus Greensmith was first onto the stage, and some work to fix intercom issues meant he was far closer to the pace of the other World Rally Car crews than he had been on the previous morning stages.
Next up was Toyota’s Sébastien Ogier, who went 9.7s faster but once again not happy with his road position compromising his pace. He ended up being the slowest of the top-class drivers fighting for points positions, with the stage only getting faster with each car that joined the road after his Yaris.
Neuville was pushing from the off, and was 2.5s up on victory rival Breen after the mid-stage split. He maintained that advantage to the end, and Breen was actually pipped to the second-fastest time through SS12 by Kalle Rovanperä.
However, despite breaking Hyundai’s control of the top three positions, as Ott Tänak was fourth fastest on the stage in the third of the i20 Coupe WRCs, Rovanperä was not happy.
“The feeling was not so good. It was a really difficult one,” he said, admitting he hadn’t quite learned his pacenotes, “I didn’t remember it so well, so it was a bit scary.”
He also had a late moment that cost him time and, given he is now 2.1s behind team-mate Elfyn Evans’ third place in the overall classification, the late slide may have cost him a chance of moving back into the podium positions too.
The Rally2 battle has been wide open so far when it comes to stage times, with WRC2, WRC3 and Belgian Rally Championship competitors fighting to be fastest.
On SS12 it was M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen who was quickest in his Ford Fiesta, with a 0.9s advantage over fellow WRC2 competitor and Volkswagen Polo GTI driver Nikolay Gryazin.
Another 2.5s slower was BRC driver Sebastien Bedoret, who is also fighting for WRC3 honors with Yohan Rossel. Through Mesen-Middelhoek he was 0.2s faster than Rossel, meaning he is now half a second clear as they battle for seventh place overall on the rally.
Jon Armstrong extended his Junior WRC lead by 10.3s on the Saturday morning loop, having started it 49.9s clear of Robert Virves.
The JWRC crews were given nominal times on the first stage of the day due to a crash, so it was William Creighton who was the pacesetter for the first time on SS10 instead and gained the extra point. Armstrong struck back on SS11, then Creighton was on top again in SS12 to by fastest over the loop by two seconds.
Creighton is still last in the overall classification for JWRC though, with Sami Pajari completing the podium behind Armstrong and Virves.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 4m23.8s
2 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.3s
3 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +2.5s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +4.1s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +4.2
6 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +5.2s
Leading positions after SS12
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe 1h35m31.8s
2 Breen/Nagle +6.8s
3 Evans/Martin +39.2s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen +41.3s
5 Ogier/Ingrassia +51.6s
6 Tänak/Järveoja +3m44.1s
7 Sebastien Bedoret/Francois Gilbert (Škoda) +8m06.9s
8 Yohan Rossel/Alexandre Coria (Citroën) +8m07.4s
9 Pieter Jan Michiel Cracco/Jaspen Vermeulen (Škoda) +8m23.4s
10 Fabien Kreim/Frank Christian (Volkswagen) +9m03.7s