Over to you, Thierry Neuville.
Ten days ago, Ott Tänak did something very special in a Hyundai i20 N Rally1: he beat a quartet of seemingly unbeatable Toyota GR Yaris Rally1s in their own Finnish backyard.
Much as Tänak would frown on such a statement, Jyväskylä’s pretty close to a second home for any Estonian rally driver. The world’s fastest and most famous stages sit just a hop across the water and are the place to go and test yourself.
This month was Ott’s 13th visit to a WRC round in Finland. And his fourth win. That sounds kind of homely…
Belgium is Neuville’s home.
Inadvertently, Tänak’s success has brought pressure to Neuville this week. His win in Italy was different. Any success in Sardinia comes courtesy of a car which works well in the rough and relies on ruts to give the rear something to grab hold of and follow the front through a corner.
Finland was about risk and reward. Tänak took the biggest risks and landed the ultimate reward.
Neuville set his stall out early in Finland. The season’s big flight wasn’t for him. He dialled the i20 back and set it to an admittedly very, very fast cruising speed. His week would come.
And his week is now.
And the good news for Belgian fans out there is that Neuville is perfectly capable of matching Tänak’s commitment of a fortnight ago.
Neuville will gently point to the fact that his upbringing was someway south of Ypres, considerably closer to the Trier home of Germany’s former WRC round. But still, he knows what’s needed to get the best out of the lanes in the country’s north.
Once he’d figured out a way to keep his glasses on his nose on Friday morning last year, Neuville was utterly peerless for the next two and a half days. The gaps he made on the world’s best stage after stage after stage were quite incredible, hauling four, five and six seconds a time out of his rivals.
Like Finland, Belgium demands respect and a solid apprenticeship (unless you’re Kris Meeke, who won on his debut in 2009). Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler reckons they’ve sussed some of Thierry’s secrets. Maybe they have. But you can be sure the local hero will have a heap more of those up his sleeve when the going gets wet. And it seems the rain is on its way this week.
Last year’s event was dry, but it’s hard to overstate how much the grip level and general nature of those same roads can change post-downpour. The locals find different lines and look for grip in very different places.
That knowledge usually comes at the cost of time in a ditch. Nothing teaches you more than the sound of a locked up slick sliding across damp asphalt followed by that horrible thumpity crump of car meeting immoveable object.
Neuville’s rivals learned some of Belgium’s secrets last year. This weekend has a whole lot more knowledge to give.
So a Neuville win is what? Odds-on? Good chance?
I’d say he has to be favorite. Winner last year, nothing left to fight for in the championship, local knowledge and good bit of grunt to haul the i20 out of junctions and send it down the straights.
What could go wrong?
Neuville could beat himself. He wants this one. He needs this one and you’d have to say his early season efforts really do warrant a win. He’s got a decent hand of cards, now he just needs to play them with a poker face. He’s got good at that.
And he needs his Hyundai to do its thing as well. Mechanical issues will not be welcome in the blue and orange corner of Ypres’ famous Grote Market this week.
Over to you, Thierry Neuville.