Stéphane Lefebvre has retained his WRC2 win on Ypres Rally Belgium despite a penalty after the finish, which was triggered by an appeal from reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen.
Former World Rally Championship factory driver Lefebvre was a heavy favorite for victory before the rally, given his dominant streak in the Belgian national championship aboard his DG Sport-prepared Citroën C3 Rally2.
That expectation became reality with an 18.1-second victory over Mikkelsen, effectively taking seven valuable points away from the Toksport driver in his quest to retain the WRC2 crown.
But Toksport had noticed that Lefebvre had taken a very aggressive line through a right-hander around 7.5 miles into both passes of the Wijtschate test, putting his entire car off the road while doing so. It filed two individual protests against Lefebvre for SS11 and SS15 respectively.
Toksport had alleged that Lefebvre’s route of cutting the corner entirely with all four wheels represented a breach of Article 19.2 of the WRC sporting regulations, which concerns event road books and their “compulsory itinerary which must be followed”.
After reviewing video evidence and speaking to team managers at both Toksport and DG Sport, rally stewards concluded that Lefebvre’s aggressive corner cut constituted a deviation from the road book’s stated itinerary.
Lefebvre was handed a five-second penalty for the first infraction, then a 10-second penalty for the second pass as it represented his second infraction on the same rally.
But with an 18.1s lead in his pocket at the finish line, it meant he kept his WRC2 class win by a mere 3.1s.
It was a change of roles for Mikkelsen, who had previously been punished by stewards for the same rules breach back in 2014.
When driving for Volkswagen at Rally Poland, Mikkelsen had taken a cut across a field in attempt to save time, for which he was handed a €5000 fine.
What exactly was Lefebvre punished for?
Carefully taken corner cuts are an essential part of keeping stage times down on Ypres Rally. Many cuts are about opening up the corner radius for faster exists, and thus carrying more speed onto subsequent straights.
This was also partly the case here; Lefebvre was trying to open up the following left-hander by aggressively cutting the preceding right – all while saving some time by simply taking the most direct route through the corner.
The offending corner was a square right, with lots of loose gravel immediately inside the apex and then a grassy verge that was a full car’s width, before a small drop into the field below.
Lefebvre’s problem is one that’s a rarity in rallying but commonplace in Formula 1. He effectively broke track limits, just on a special stage in the Belgian countryside instead.
As the stewards themselves explained when handing out Lefebvre’s time penalties: “The compulsory itinerary of the rally is defined in the Road Book by the road direction diagrams and between the road direction diagrams (as per this case), by the defined roadway.”
In other words, deviations from the roads laid out in the road book are not allowed. And in Lefebvre’s case, none of the wheels on his Citroën were on the defined roadway when taking this corner cut.
In this case, leaving the ‘defined roadway’ was considered to have given Lefebvre a competitive advantage: “The corner in question is a very typical place where time can be gained if the defined roadway, as stipulated in Art. 19.2 of 2022 FIA WRC Sporting Regulations, is not used,” read their statement. “After the Tarmac edge, the road broadens to a mixture of concrete and gravel.”
On the second pass, Lefebvre’s cut was larger than the first and it showed – he even bypassed the concrete and gravel portion and went fully onto the grassy verge. It showed in the splits: he’d gone from being 1.7s up on Mikkelsen after 8.8km to 4.6s up after 12.3km, right after the offending corner in question.
While Lefebvre did break the rules, he also probably has reason to feel a little hard done by. Unlike Mikkelsen’s brazen trip through a field in Poland eight years before, the Belgian championship leader’s departure from the road was minor in comparison.
There was also nothing physically stopping him from cutting – something that FIA sporting delegate Timo Rautianen felt was less than ideal.
“Mr. Rautiainen strongly suggested to the organizer that some preventive measures should be taken, especially in the two very obvious locations brought forward by the team,” further read the penalty decision.
“The organizer refused to take any measures, due to the large number of possible locations and lack of suitable material at such short notice, as the matter was only raised by the team after reconnaissance.”
That said, Lefebvre had also been warned, in effect. A clerk of the course communication had been circulated among all competitors just after 8am on Friday, reminding them not to break Article 19.2 by deviating from the road book.
Toksport had event sent its team member Bernt Kollevold out to the corner in question and filmed all the Rally1 cars coming through ahead of Lefebvre and Mikkelsen.
It seemed it knew the warning might not be heeded.