Home favorite Thierry Neuville set the fastest time on Ypres Rally shakedown, beating World Rally Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä by 0.6 seconds.
As is Ypres Rally tradition, the Nieuwkerke shakedown stage took place on Thursday afternoon instead of the morning like other rounds of the World Rally Championship.
Rain is forecast for Friday’s opening leg of competitive rally action and the showers arrived just before shakedown got underway, leaving the 4.56-mile stage damp in sections – particularly in the middle.
Neuville, who won Ypres last year and boasts more experience on these stages than any of his rivals, was quickest after the first pass, a startling 2.7s quicker than Esapekka Lappi’s Toyota.
But as drivers took more passes at the stage the times began to tumble, and world championship leader Rovanperä had looked to have usurped Neuville by the narrowest of margins – just 0.1s.
However on his fourth run, Neuville lowered his benchmark by 0.7s to return to the top of the shakedown timesheets.
“It’s going to be a tricky event,” Neuville predicted. “We have already changing conditions on shakedown so that’s what we’re going to expect through the weekend.
“We have to have a clean, clever drive through and enjoy the whole weekend.”
Elfyn Evans set the third fastest time, 0.7s down on his team-mate Rovanperä with a best effort of 3m45.7s on his fourth run – a time that was equalled late on by Oliver Solberg.
“Finland is forgotten now,” said Solberg, who crashed early on last time out, “it’s been tough but we just need to move forward and work and that’s it.
“It’s quite different on Tarmac now but it’s going to be a really tricky weekend with weather and everything so we’ll see how it goes.”
Evans and Solberg’s joint third-fastest effort was three tenths up on M-Sport Ford’s Craig Breen – the only other previous Ypres winner aside from Neuville in the Rally1 field.
But after a punishing run of form of late, Breen was simply looking to find his feet again on shakedown.
“I’m hoping for a strong weekend obviously, it can’t go much worse than the last events have gone,” he said.
“I just need to finish the rally, try and enjoy it and get back a bit of the love. We’ve had a very difficult test honestly so today is just about finding a good feeling with the car and trying to settle ourselves back into the game.”
Lappi was sixth fastest on shakedown, contesting his first Ypres Rally since 2014, just 0.1s slower than Breen but some 0.7s than Rally Finland winner Ott Tänak.
Adrien Fourmaux managed to muscle his Ford Puma Rally1 in between the pair, slotting into seventh on his fifth and final run.
Takamoto Katsuta suffered a small escapade on the first pass of shakedown when he overshot a junction, receiving a ‘square right’ call from co-driver Aaron Johnston when in fact the stage went left.
But it was no major drama given it wasn’t a competitive stage, and Katsuta recovered to the ninth best time.
“I just try to get more confidence, this is the biggest aim for me this rally,” he said.
Gus Greensmith took a maximum of five runs at the shakedown test (as he usually does) and improved each time, eventually setting a time 5.6s off Neuville’s benchmark.
“I’ve never driven here when it’s been raining so driving here in slicks, I was very careful,” Greensmith explained.
Former works Citroën driver Stéphane Lefebvre set the pace in WRC2, beating defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen by half a second.
Ypres is expected to be a strong event for Citroën C3 Rally2 pilot Lefebvre who currently leads this year’s Belgian Rally Championship.
“We know quite well this rally, so I do what I need to do,” he said.