The World Rally Championship’s first ever visit to Belgium is nudging ever nearer. The crews are in town, recce is being completed and preparations being finalized ahead of what is one of the most unique and demanding rallies you’ll find anywhere on the planet.
Ypres Rally is special, but despite it’s fame, it’s a rally where those aforementioned preparations may prove to be more crucial than others. That’s because of the 10 drivers to tackle this year’s event in the top class, only two have done it before and just one in a World Rally Car.
Immediately then those two drivers would appear to be at an advantage, but there are several factors to consider when predicting success on round eight of this year’s WRC.
Here therefore is DirtFish’s form guide ahead of the 2021 Ypres Rally.
#1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-1st-1st
Last 3 asphalt results: 1st-1st-1st
Despite being one of several drivers not to have tackled Ypres before – and claiming he’s now happy to protect his points lead and not necessarily give it his all for event victories – Sébastien Ogier still looks like a favorite for success this week.
There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, Ogier’s position of first on the road, which usually proves to be a handicap, could be a handy advantage on Friday depending on the condition of the road. If it’s in any way damp, the pollution-free road he’ll face will save him vital tenths of a second that could be enough for him to overcome any experience deficit.
But secondly, Ogier’s form – particularly on asphalt – is exemplary right now. Since moving to Toyota, Ogier has won three of the four asphalt rallies he’s entered so he and the Yaris are the recognized package to beat on the black stuff.
Ogier is a driver that can never be ruled out, but on asphalt he stands a much stronger chance of remaining close enough to fight for victory on pace rather than using his supreme survival skills to creep up the order like in Italy or Kenya.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th-DNF-DNF
Last 3 asphalt results: 29th-16th-5th(WRC2)
Pierre-Louis Loubet was in need of a big reset after a torrid run of form across the first half of 2021. The Hyundai junior got it last month, recording a low-key seventh place in Estonia following an event off in Kenya that afforded him a breather.
While Loubet was nowhere in terms of pace in Estonia, he didn’t need to be as his target was to just reach the end of the event without mishap. He achieved that, so now it’s time to see if he can do the same on asphalt and with a little more pace too.
Loubet has never done Ypres, but he did do Rally du Condroz Huy at the end of his WRC2 title-winning season in 2019, and finished 15th. The two Belgian rallies are different, but any experience of the character of these roads will be of some use to Loubet this week.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 31st-3rd-24th
Last 3 asphalt results: 4th-DNF-2nd
Ott Tänak’s championship motives may have shifted towards securing a manufacturers’ championship for Hyundai rather than a second world title for himself, but that doesn’t mean we’re about to witness an off-pace Tänak in Ypres this week.
Rally wins are still very much the target, although to achieve that in Belgium would require an upturn in asphalt pace following an off-beat performance in Croatia earlier in the year.
Tänak has started an event on Italian asphalt since then and declared himself content with developments made, but the 2019 world champion hasn’t started a single rally in Belgium before. Of the three works Hyundais to be starting, he for once looks like the least likely to win. But stranger things have happened…
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-DNF-3rd
Last 3 asphalt results: 3rd-3rd-DNF
Although he hasn’t won a WRC event since January 2020 – two months before social distancing, PCR tests and face coverings were the norm – Thierry Neuville is the overwhelming favorite to win the first ever world rally held in his native Belgium.
It isn’t just the clichéd local knowledge that elevates Neuville into that position, but rather that he actually has experience of these roads. This year’s Ypres Rally will be Neuville’s ninth following various attempts over the years in a range of machinery. He’s won it once, back in 2018, as well as scoring success on the Masters event in 2019 with the i20 Coupe WRC, but both of those triumphs would mean nothing compared to a WRC win in his homeland.
Neuville’s general asphalt form is always strong as he usually finds himself there or thereabouts. He’s been knocking on the door of victory of late in the WRC so all the ingredients should be in place. He’ll challenge for it this week at the very, very least.
#16 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-6th-5th
Last 3 asphalt results: 5th-2nd(WRC2)-4th(WRC2)
Adrien Fourmaux has blown away all expectations onlookers had for him since stepping into a World Rally Car for half the rallies this season, but he’s ready to go one step further on Ypres Rally.
Now with three world rallies under his belt with the Fiesta WRC, he wants to push the frontrunners harder and could stand a very good chance of doing just that this week. While he is an Ypres rookie like so many others, co-driver Renaud Jamoul is not and that could prove useful.
Plus, with an asphalt rally (Croatia) already in the books, Fourmaux isn’t heading into this as green as he has done previously. He’s proved himself to be one of the quickest learners out there, so with most of his opposition also facing a blank canvas this week Fourmaux could be about to capitalize and edge himself even closer to – or even onto – the podium.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Keaton Williams (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-2nd-4th
Last 3 asphalt rallies: 6th-6th-20th
Takamoto Katsuta’s 2021 season hit its first blip last month, but not by design. Co-driver Dan Barritt tweaked something in his back upon landing over of the jumps, forcing the pair to call it quits just a few stages in – having quietly risen onto the provisional podium.
The hangover from that is still being felt as Barritt has had to miss Ypres too, handing Keaton Williams his first-ever top-flight co-driving gig. Williams and Katsuta know each other well having conducted several tests together this year, but competing in a rally is an entirely different ballgame.
Despite Williams’ inexperience, he has started Ypres before (in 2019) which could aid Katsuta who has never competed on Belgian soil in a rally car. It will be interesting to see if the change of in-car dynamic interrupts Katsuta’s flawless rhythm this week or if he will immediately be back to his giant-killing best.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-10th-2nd
Last 3 asphalt rallies: 2nd-2nd-29th
Elfyn Evans is a driver in need of a slight turnaround in form. A costly – and needless – error on the Safari was followed by a sub-par Estonia, which leaves Ogier’s championship chaser-in-chief 37 points down with five rounds to go.
Plain and simply, Evans needs to beat Ogier this weekend if he stands any chance of denying his team-mate an eighth world crown. The good thing for him is asphalt rallying has always proved to be one of his strong suits, so a strong result could be on the cards.
Evans has no experience of Ypres but is another to be competing with a co-driver who does. Scott Martin has entered Ypres twice alongside Craig Breen in the ERC, although the most recent of those occasions was 2015.
Regardless, the Toyota crew are one of the stronger bets for success this week. Second on the road should be a decent spot too, so it’s now up to Evans to make the most of the situation and try to put the pressure onto Ogier.
#42 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-8th-4th
Last 3 asphalt results: 8th-9th-7th
Along with his Hyundai team-mate Neuville, Craig Breen starts this week knowing precisely what he’s in for. Breen has started Ypres Rally four times before, snatching a podium on debut back in 2012 and winning the last time the rally ran in ’19.
That doesn’t automatically make Breen a shoo-in for success in 2021 given his so-so performance in Croatia with the i20 Coupe WRC on asphalt, but it certainly gives him a leg-up on all of the opposition bar Neuville.
Road position could be what makes or breaks Breen’s Ypres. Starting as the seventh car on the road could mean the Hyundai drives faces a far dirtier line than his expected rivals which’ll therefore blunt his attack.
But following his strong second in Estonia, Breen is in a good run of form and gets the opportunity to start back-to-back WRC events too, meaning he’s not on the back foot in terms of familiarity and instead very much on the front foot with his Ypres knowledge.
#44 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 32nd-4th-26th
Last 3 asphalt results: 7th-8th-DNF
Gus Greensmith’s recent run of results don’t do his performances justice. The M-Sport driver heads into this asphalt round of the WRC as a far stronger candidate than he did back before Croatia in April, and a lot of that sharp increased performance has been credited to Chris Patterson.
Patterson’s influence could really tell this weekend too as he and his Belgian wife met in Ypres, providing Greensmith with a local to call upon for hints and tips.
Like Breen, road position could hamper Greensmith as he starts one car behind the Hyundai on Friday’s starting order but really what Greensmith will want is a clean attempt at this rally that isn’t intermittently blighted by mechanical gremlins.
If he can get that, then Greensmith could perhaps be the surprise package of the weekend.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-6th-25th
Last 3 asphalt results: DNF-4th-5th
When it comes to form heading into Ypres though, nobody can compete with Kalle Rovanperä. The 20-year-old became the latest and youngest ever driver to win a round of the world championship last month; a result that put his snowballing season firmly back on track.
Rovanperä isn’t the most revered asphalt driver in the business, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t effective on this surface. Remember he was briefly leading the Monte Carlo Rally earlier this year.
The truth is though that Rovanperä doesn’t look odds on to seal back-to-back WRC victories this week. Ypres is an all-new kind of event for him, but learning is second nature to Rovanperä who has taken to life as a top-line WRC driver with ease.
Rallies are won on the road and not on paper, but this event does look like it’s Hyundai’s and Neuville’s to lose.