Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak hold an overnight one-two for Hyundai for the first time this season in the World Rally Championship as Elfyn Evans fell adrift at the end of the first day of Ypres Rally Belgium due to checking into the final stage late.
Evans led in Belgium for most of the opening day, but lost his advantage on the seventh stage of eight after a stunning time from Neuville.
The Toyota driver lost more time on SS8, dropping three seconds to Neuville, but trails by 13.7s overall due to a 10s time penalty for checking into SS8 one minute late.
“It’s not been a great afternoon,” Evans said. “We had a slow puncture out of the second stage so we had to use a rain tire and in these conditions it’s not ideal.”
Neuville, naturally, was far happier – leading his home round of the WRC overnight after recovering well from an overshoot on the first stage.
“It’s a whole different afternoon in terms of handling of the car, I’m much happier now,” he said.
“Our gravel crew has done a great job as well, very precise information and I felt comfortable to follow his information. That’s very important on a day like this.”
Neuville leads Tänak by 2.5s, beating his team-mate by 1.9s on SS8 – but the Rally Finland winner has been pleasantly surprised by his Friday pace.
“The day has been a lot better than expected, we really didn’t have the feeling yesterday [on shakedown] to be fighting today,” Tänak said.
“It’s been coming the hard way but we are in a surprisingly good position.”
Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi is best of the rest behind the top three – or as he put it at the end of SS7 he is “leading the class with the wrong tires”.
Both Lappi and fifth-placed Craig Breen opted for three wet and three soft compound tires for the afternoon, but the expected rain failed to materialize.
That led Breen, who was second in Ypres last year and won it in 2019 when it was a non-WRC event, to label his Friday as “nearly the worst one that I’ve had” in Flanders.
“We’ve just been very unlucky this evening with the way we planned our tire choice,” he said.
“We were expecting the rain and we’ve done the whole afternoon without seeing a proper drop of it, but c’est la vie.”
Lappi is 18.8s up the road from Breen after an impressive time through SS8 that was just one tenth slower than Tänak’s.
“The tire choice was not the greatest for the afternoon but that’s how it is,” Lappi said. “I think we managed very well.”
Gus Greensmith, Oliver Solberg and Adrien Fourmaux are cut slightly adrift of those ahead of them, all over 1m30s back from Neuville.
M-Sport Ford’s Greensmith sits in sixth ahead of Solberg, who suffered a gearbox problem in his Hyundai on the final stage and it upset his rhythm.
“I know I can go much faster, but we just need to build up the confidence again and we’ll see tomorrow,” Solberg said.
Fourmaux, who was punished on the first pass of Langemark when the rain fell and dropped him four places to eighth, has held position throughout the afternoon and lurks 8.3s behind Solberg overall.
Stéphane Lefebvre leads WRC2 after a dominant display in his Citroën C3 Rally2, leading last year’s WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen by 15.5s.
Chris Ingram was fastest on the first stage but from there Lefebvre – who leads this year’s Belgian Rally Championship – has been boss, pulling clear of Mikkelsen.
“It was a clean day, not so much risk, so I enjoy,” said Lefebvre.
Mikkelsen, who is 10th overall, was sticking to his plan though.
“We’re trying to find a risk level which is tolerant for the whole rally, and so far it’s been working well,” he said.
“For sure we can push more but then the risk immediately goes high. So we had a good day, I’m happy with our performance.”
Yohan Rossel rounds out the WRC2 podium 13.1s adrift of Mikkelsen’s Škoda.