Ott Tänak has won his second World Rally Championship event in a row, beating Elfyn Evans to Ypres Rally Belgium victory by five seconds.
Following victories in Sardinia and last time out in Finland, it’s Tänak’s third win of the season that marks him as the only real challenger to Kalle Rovanperä in the title race.
Rovanperä still leads the way by 72 points, but it’s the first time since the season-opener in Monte Carlo that the Toyota driver hasn’t either taken or extended the points lead.
Ypres gave Rovanperä his first mathematical shot at lifting this year’s world championship, but it was always going to be a long shot as he needed to win and have the Hyundais of Tänak and Thierry Neuville struggle.
As it happened, it was Rovanperä that fumbled. Quickest on the opening stage laid down a marker, but he was out on the second – turning in too early for the left-hander in a quick right-left sequence, understeering wide and rolling over in a ditch.
It was his first mistake of the season, but a win on the powerstage at least rescued five points from the weekend.
With Rovanperä out, the rally win was up for grabs and Tänak, Neuville and Evans all fancied it.
Evans was elevated into the lead following his team-mate’s retirement, but over the course of the afternoon the Hyundais hit back.
Last year’s winner Neuville had overshot on the first stage and immediately thrown away 10 seconds, but a confident push in the afternoon earned him the overnight lead over team-mate Tänak.
Evans would’ve been tucked right behind but a 10s penalty for checking into Friday’s final stage one minute late cost him dearly – particularly when you consider that he eventually only lost the rally by less than 10s.
Tänak wasn’t going to let Neuville run away on his home stages and duly ripped the lead away from him on Saturday’s opener, but from there his i20 N Rally1’s transmission began to cry enough and that was the break Neuville needed as he romped clear with a string of awesome stage times.
Neuville had been nearly 20s to the good heading onto Saturday’s penultimate stage and seemingly on his way for victory – only for a dusty and messy corner to catch him out and suck his Hyundai wide into a ditch. The resultant front-right damage sensationally put him out.
Tänak was then back out front and wasn’t about to let go. Evans kept him honest throughout the final day, but the 2019 world champion had enough in the tank to record his first back-to-back WRC wins since Finland and Germany in his championship year.
“To win here is a big surprise for us, more or less the same like it was in Finland, we were not expecting it,” Tänak said. “Somehow we were able to pull it together even though I don’t feel comfortable.
“It’s great to see some results are coming.”
Second for Evans meant his wait for an asphalt win in the WRC goes on, but Toyota still banked a healthy haul of points as Esapekka Lappi came home third for his second consecutive podium and first on asphalt since Rally Germany four years ago.
Aside from a scare where he was almost in a ditch and a brief meeting with a fence post, Lappi had a trouble-free event on a rally where only half of the 10 Rally1 cars made it to the end unscathed.
Oliver Solberg brought his Hyundai home in fourth for his career-best WRC result – a finely timed drive following the disaster of his first corner crash in Finland just two weeks earlier.
He had been battling Adrien Fourmaux for that position on the final day, but an unwell Fourmaux dropped the ball on the penultimate stage of the event, squirreling out of shape on a medium-speed corner, running into a ditch and then smacking a telegraph pole for good measure.
It had been a deeply encouraging run until then, with Fourmaux as high as fourth on Friday before an untimely rain shower created a far different challenge for him than most of his rivals and dumped him down to eighth. He had even had a meeting with the police that cost him 20s in the rally for arriving to SS15 two minutes late.
Fourmaux’s result had been the only real positive for M-Sport Ford after Craig Breen crashed on Saturday. Breen, a previous winner in Ypres and podium finisher last year, had been running fifth before being caught out by a tightening left-hander and rolling in a ditch.
Ironically Gus Greensmith had made a mistake earlier on the stage, misjudging his braking and running off the road into a field. It would’ve been fine had the field not dropped away from the road, but because it did the sudden bump back down damaged Greensmith’s rear-left and dropped him outside the points.
Takamoto Katsuta was the only other Rally1 driver to make it to the end in the top 10, finishing fifth and thus becoming the only driver to finish in the top 10 on every rally this season following Rovanperä’s crash.
But it wasn’t an easy run. A stage two overshoot preceded a gearbox problem at the end of the first loop which left Katsuta on a fightback through the field.
The carnage around him eventually made that a fairly simple task, but Katsuta was frustrated by intermittent hybrid problems. He lost the support of his 100kW unit on three separate stages throughout the weekend.
The chaos in the Rally1 class allowed the leading Rally2 runners to flood the second half of the top 10, and it was Stéphane Lefebvre’s Citroën C3 Rally2 that topped the pile – winning WRC2.
Andreas Mikkelsen was Lefebvre’s chief rival, but Lefebvre – the leader of this year’s Belgian Rally Championship – ultimately had the edge against a championship-thinking Mikkelsen who knew he could go faster but wasn’t prepared to take that risk, knowing that a DNF would end his title defense.
Sixth overall for Lefebvre actually equaled his second-best WRC result, claimed on Rally Spain in 2017 when he was a works Citroën driver in a C3 WRC.
“I’m so proud of what we achieved this weekend,” Lefebvre said, who last won in WRC2 on the 2015 Monte Carlo Rally. “This victory is for the team.”
Yohan Rossel completed the WRC2 podium, albeit over a minute down on the similar machine of Lefebvre, while Chris Ingram passed and then pulled away from Grégoire Munster on the final day when Munster punctured.
That earned Ingram ninth overall and victory in the WRC2 Junior class.
Rovanperä elected to carry no spare tires for the final loop which paid off as he won the powerstage by 1.1s over Evans, while Neuville (who had a transmission problem on the final stage), Tänak and Katsuta claimed the rest of the bonus points.