Thierry Neuville will head into the final day of the Ypres Rally with a lead of 10.1 seconds over Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Craig Breen as they fight for victory on the World Rally Championship’s newest event.
Breen started the day with two stage wins to halve Neuville’s lead, then Neuville struck back on the next two while Elfyn Evans picked up Toyota’s first stage win of the weekend.
Sébastien Ogier started the afternoon loop by adding to Toyota’s stage-win tally while Breen cut into Neuville’s advantage again, but then the Belgian used home road knowledge to bring his lead back to roughly where it had been at the start of the day by beating Breen on the next two.
There was talk of team orders through Saturday, and both Neuville and Breen (pictured above) seemed more focused on the battle for third between the Toyota drivers behind rather than their own fight for position, though Breen kept the pressure on where he could.
On SS16 Mesen – Middelhoek, the final stage of the day, Neuville went fastest by 1.1s over Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä, with Breen only fifth fastest and 2.9s behind.
“It’s been a nice day, I’ve enjoyed it from start to finish,” said Breen.
“I’m a little bit sad that this is the end of the Flanders part of the rally because this is really the home of Ypres Rally.
“So a little bit sad to be driving out tomorrow morning, but a new day in Spa tomorrow. Not so many kilometers, but a lot of room for mistakes, a lot of room for some tricky stages. But I’m super happy with our performance today. We’ve taken another big step.”
Neuville, who has brought his lead into double figures for the first time, said he knew it was going to be “a challenging day” and was relieved to make it to the finish.
“Nothing is done yet, but a big part of the rally has been managed by us very well so far, and the car is working well,” he said.
“I’m happy with the performance so far. Of course it’s always nice when you go more flat-out, but we have to manage and we need to be clever.”
Evans still holds onto third place in his Toyota Yaris WRC, but the upturn in Rovanperä’s pace on SS16 was because over the afternoon loop he had been losing touch with Evans and coming under pressure from Ogier, meaning he needed to react.
“For sure I’m not giving up that easily,” Rovanperä said.
“Tomorrow will be tricky. Again, a new style of stages, completely different than what we have here.”
He ended the day 3.3s behind Evans, and just a single second ahead of Ogier, who had his nominal time from the red-flagged SS10 adjusted to be a couple of seconds faster as he originally completed the stage at transit speed.
“The form was a bit the same yesterday that [Ogier] was a bit stronger on second pass,” Evans said of his under-pressure third place. “I think we were closer to him in general, but yeah it’s close.”
The last two World Rally Cars still in competition are Ott Tänak, in a lonely sixth place in his Hyundai, and M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith.
On SS16, Greensmith went 16.5s slower than he did on the first run of the stage as the result of being stuck in road mode with his engine.
“All the buttons seem to be working, just not the important one,” he said.
His team-mate Adrien Fourmaux and Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta have retired from the event, while 2C Competition Hyundai’s Pierre-Louis Loubet ended his Saturday in a ditch in the morning but could return to the rally on Sunday.
Leading WRC2 into the final day is Oliver Solberg, who is giving the Hyundai i20 N Rally2 its competition debut. He’s been fighting his car though as he’s been without power-steering.
“Absolutely crazy. The junctions at the worst,” he said after completing Saturday’s stages. “I had no power in my arms left!”
Jari Huttunen was fastest of the Rally2 cars through SS16 in the sister Hyundai to Solberg’s, and he’s now 3m36.1s behind in the WRC2 classification.
Both are some way behind the fight for WRC3 honors, which has gone on all day between Sebastien Bedoret and Yohan Rossel, with just a few tenths of a second frequently splitting the two.
Rossel drove his Citroën C3 Rally2 through Mesen-Middelhoek 0.1s slower than Huttunen and 1.5s faster than Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo pilot Bedoret, meaning he is now 0.9s behind in their class battle.
Completing the podium at present is Pieter Jan Michiel Cracco, who is a further 22.4s back in another Škoda. He is also Bedoret’s closest rival of those registered for Belgian Rally Championship points on this rally.
Gino Bux leads the FIA R-GT Cup classification by 1m43.4s over Pierre Ragues, better known as the 2013 European Le Mans Series Champion, who is on course to go to the top of the standings as points leader Emmanuel Guigou is absent from Ypres.
Just behind the top R-GT contenders in the overall classification is the first-placed Junior WRC runner Jon Armstrong. The Briton holds an advantage of 1m01.1s over Sami Pajari, with Robert Virves being shuffled back to third place in class.
1 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) 4m21.2s
2 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +1.1s
3 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +2s
4 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) 2.3s
5 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai) +2.9s
6 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +3.6s
Leading positions after SS16
1 Neuville/Wydaeghe 2h01m57.6s
2 Breen/Nagle +10.1s
3 Evans/Martin +42.4s
4 Rovanperä/Halttunen +45.7s
5 Ogier/Ingrassia +46.7s
6 Tänak/Järveoja +3m55.2s
7 Sebastien Bedoret/Francois Gilbert (Škoda) +10m39.9s
8 Yohan Rossel/Alexandre Coria (Citroën) +10m40.8s
9 Pieter Jan Michiel Cracco/Jaspen Vermeulen (Škoda) +11m03.2s
10 Vincent Verschueren/Filip Cuvelier (Volkswagen) +11m34.8s