The World Rally Championship visited its 35th country last weekend as the Ypres Rally in Belgium joined the series as round eight of the 2021 season.
But unlike events such as Croatia and Arctic Rally to a lesser extent, the Ypres Rally was well-known in the rallying world prior to its WRC inclusion; famed for its big cuts, ditches, junctions and atmosphere.
The event certainly didn’t disappoint as it made its WRC bow, and it gave us plenty to discuss and dissect ahead of the next WRC rally in Greece.
Here’s what we learned from Ypres Rally 2021.
Neuville back in the title race
He might not have been utterly convinced himself, but all the pre-event talk centered on Thierry Neuville as the favorite for victory on Ypres. He lived up to the billing, and then some.
Neuville’s experience of the Belgian event is impressive, and proved vital considering the only other driver to have sampled the stages before was Craig Breen. The Hyundai driver still had a job to do though and he executed it impeccably, not putting a wheel out of line all weekend to secure a popular, and famous, victory.
As important as it was for Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to earn their first win together – and do so in their homeland – perhaps the wider significance of their performance was the effect it has had on the title equation.
Sébastien Ogier did well to rescue four points from the powerstage to add to his tally from finishing fifth, but Neuville’s 25 points for victory and an extra three for the third-fastest powerstage time have reduced his gap to the championship leader from 52 to 38 points.
Of course, Ogier could stay at home instead of traveling to the Acropolis and remain in the lead regardless of who won the event, but this was a serious momentum shift for Neuville who’s pulled himself into the equation he probably should’ve always been fairly factored into.
The four remaining rallies – Acropolis, Finland, Spain and Japan – are all very different and Ogier could struggle on the first two particularly as first on the road. If Neuville can bag another win on the Acropolis, Ogier’s status as overwhelming favorite may begin to wane.
The big loser from Ypres though is Elfyn Evans. For the first time since Portugal three months ago he did manage to beat Ogier last weekend, but a poor powerstage run meant he actually dropped one point further behind Ogier in the championship, and is now dead level with Neuville but forced to still start second on the road in Greece due to a better result on round one.
Rovanperä is a secret asphalt ace
For most of the Ypres Rally weekend, Evans looked to be on top of an intense fight between the three works Toyotas; scrapping over the final podium place with Neuville and Breen clear out in front.
On the face of it, Kalle Rovanperä had no right to even be in the reckoning. He’d only started one WRC rally in a World Rally Car on dry asphalt before, and his form wasn’t exactly promising as he crashed out on stage one.
But the 20-year-old was there or thereabouts throughout, closely shadowing Evans when the rally was in the Flanders fields and then usurping him as it headed east to Spa.
It was an incredibly commendable performance as he finished best of all the Ypres rookies in third place. When Rovanperä, usually a very harsh self-critic, talks openly about how happy he can be with what he’s achieved, you know it was a mightily impressive drive.
This strong form on the black stuff bodes well for him too with an ever-increasing number of asphalt rounds now in the WRC. Of the four rounds remaining in 2021, half of them are on Tarmac and the other is Rally Finland, so Rovanperä could be poised to end his season on a very strong note.
Suninen’s dug himself into a hole
Rovanperä’s Finnish compatriot Teemu Suninen is having anything but a strong run at the moment. Back in the Fiesta Rally2, Ypres was an opportunity for him to reverse a trend of mistakes and forgettable performances.
To his credit, he was managing that after six special stages, holding a lead of over 20 seconds in WRC2 ahead of Jari Huttunen. But Friday’s penultimate test would prove his downfall.
Things started sketchily in the first few miles when he made a forgivable overshoot and had to use the stage access road to turn his M-Sport Ford around. But his erratic moment – losing the rear on braking into a square-left and ploughing side-on into a field – was exactly the kind of misdemeanor a man under Suninen’s level of pressure and scrutiny could ill afford.
The off-road excursion caused a puncture, but the bigger issue was his Fiesta’s radiator grille hoovered up a heap of grass. Suninen probably didn’t realize that without the benefit of seeing the exterior of his car, but later in the stage his engine died and he had to stop. He would return on Saturday but the damage had been done, and the engine soon cried enough.
Out of context the error possibly wasn’t too major, but in the current context it has the feeling of a final nail in the coffin regarding Suninen’s M-Sport future. Although that being said, his two team-mates in World Rally Cars didn’t exactly give the best accounts of themselves either. Adrien Fourmaux spectacularly crashed out one stage later, and a pacenote error led to Gus Greensmith slipping into a ditch.
The 2022 Puma Rally1 testing program (and a somewhat surprise win for Matthew Wilson in the British Rally Championship at the weekend) will give the team a solid source of respite from what’s proving to be a trying season.
Breen must get a full season in 2022
Craig Breen is positioning himself perfectly for some 2022 negotiations with yet another second place podium finish. And who knows what he might have been able to achieve in Ypres had he not been ‘recommended’ to sit behind Neuville after Friday?
That one can never be answered, but what is undoubtedly no longer a question is whether Breen deserves a full-season program in 2022. His level of performance in Estonia was sublime, and that was arguably raised yet again in Ypres.
Of course that should come with the caveat that he was one of only two drivers to have knowledge of the unique stages, but Breen still utilized that accordingly and kept up with Neuville who’s done the rally twice as many times and hails from close to the area.
The overriding takeaway though is Breen has proved what he can do when he’s in a World Rally Car regularly. He entered two events on the bounce and performed superbly on both; and lower road position from a weaker championship position due to his part-time program had very little to do with either result.
Ultimately Breen can do more than he is currently doing. If he doesn’t land a proper program for 2022, that’s not on him or Paul Nagle but management at the WRC’s various teams.
Tänak (and Solberg) can’t catch a break
Ott Tänak’s tenure at Hyundai has predominantly been one of woe. The sight of him jumping out of his i20 Coupe WRC mid-stage during a rally is becoming all too familiar that it almost doesn’t feel interesting anymore.
There does seem to be a bit of a curse cast on him just now, as the majority of the team’s mechanical gremlins are impacting Tänak. On Ypres, an engine fault lost him boost and therefore valuable seconds before he punctured the following day. The jack then failed as he changed the flat, encapsulating his current lack of fortune.
Tänak’s title chances didn’t really exist before Ypres – he told DirtFish pre-event “it’s not really possible to be honest and more theoretical” – but he’s not even in the conversation anymore. He doesn’t really deserve that, as his performance level across 2021 has been on par with Ogier and Neuville’s (Estonia aside).
He isn’t the only Hyundai driver to be bogged in a rut though. The bubble of excitement that existed around Oliver Solberg after that stunning Arctic Rally Finland debut in a i20 Coupe WRC has burst.
On the Safari he was back in the big car but that lasted effectively less than a stage, and his two subsequent WRC2 appearances thereafter have ended prematurely through no fault of his own.
Ypres was particularly galling. Driving the all-new i20 N Rally2 on its first ever rally, Solberg was perhaps fortunate to sail into the lead on Friday night after Suninen’s moment and team-mate Huttunen puncturing too. But watching him suffer relentlessly without power-steering for over half of Saturday was painful to watch let alone handle for Solberg.
For that effort to then go unrewarded when his i20 failed to start out of parc ferme on Sunday morning was simply unfair. Solberg deserved the WRC2 win, but he was denied the chance to claim it and he lies 17th in the points. And as an aside, the power-steering has to be number one on Hyundai’s to-do list as the pump also leaked on Huttunen’s car on Sunday.
Ypres’ reputation wasn’t misplaced
Ypres Rally has a notorious reputation for being tricky to master, and when the world’s best rally drivers struggle to adapt then it’s safe to say that that isn’t a misplaced claim. Previous experience proved to be key, particularly on Friday, and Neuville and Breen made good use of that to pull clear.
Equally, inexperience was shown up. The aforementioned Fourmaux and Greensmith both made errors, as did Hyundai junior Pierre-Louis Loubet and Toyota’s junior driver Takamoto Katsuta.
Katsuta’s crash was a bit of a monster but was typical of Ypres. Any small misjudgement is punished with severe consequences. As rally winner Neuville put it: “When you go off, you properly go off because you always are racing at high speed.”
But what did Ypres add to the WRC?
The stages were certainly unique; Ogier describing it after recce as an “untypical rally” that was “very different” to anything he’d done before. It’s always important for each round of the WRC to have its own character, and Ypres certainly delivers on that score.
Belgium is – and always has been – a nation mad about rallying, so in that sense it makes complete sense to have a round of the WRC there; particularly with Neuville consistently fighting for the WRC title. Spa-Francorchamps was also a brilliant PR exercise too and not bad as a rally stage, although this particular writer would agree with Breen that it was a shame to not make use of Ypres town center’s electric buzz for the rally finish.
Ypres is looking set for a reintroduction to the ERC before a WRC return a few years later, but Ypres is that popular an event that it will remain a highlight of the rallying year regardless of the championship it’s a part of.