It’s rare for a driver who hasn’t won a World Rally Championship event in 19 months to be so hotly tipped for success heading into a rally weekend. But it’s equally rare for a driver to have twice as much experience of a rally than all of their rivals combined.
That accrued knowledge, particularly on an event as specialized as Ypres Rally, is why the one everybody’s predicting will win this week is Thierry Neuville.
But the Hyundai star doesn’t necessarily see it like that. Asked in his pre-event Zoom press conference if he can only lose the rally given his billing, Neuville cheekily responded: “No, I can also win it!
“I mean as always we have a good chance for a good result,” he elaborated. “It’s nothing actually different than any of the other rallies, we are most of the time amongst the leaders.
“I think with five podiums in seven races and being in the lead in Portugal before retiring and the same for Kenya shows that we have been in the game pretty much everywhere and it should be the same this weekend.
“[A] few of the competitors [are] going to make the fight tough, as usual. There are never real big differences on any of those rallies between the fastest guys so I don’t see really why here the gap should be bigger than usual.”
Despite chucking a river of cold water onto the speculation, Neuville did admit that his past experience – that includes an outright win in 2018 and victory in the Masters section a year later with the i20 Coupe WRC – is “definitely helpful” and could give him an edge.
“Hopefully I can be a little bit more safe than them, let’s say like this. I don’t find a good word but a little bit more relaxed basically and take the advantage from my knowledge of the region, my knowledge of the stages and the characteristics.
“If I can benefit from that, I should have the upper hand.”
Neuville’s team-mate Craig Breen is the only other P1 driver to have competed on Ypres and has a secret weapon in the form of co-driver Paul Nagle who has won the rally twice before – alongside Breen in 2019 and Kris Meeke a decade earlier.
After joking Nagle is the “junction champion”, Breen went on to explain that competing at home could give Neuville “an extra spark” even if his extra experience compared to Breen shouldn’t make too much difference.
“I think our knowledge of the roads around here is pretty much level pegging, I can’t say I don’t know them as well as he does,” Breen said.
“The only thing is [with Neuville] having done it in the World car last time, just to know that those few places where you have the benefit of the aero. Having done it in the R5 car, maybe I might be bit ahead and that would help, but I don’t think it’s night and day really.
“So, I think some aspects would have been the home rally, there’s a little bit of pressure with that. I think having that pressure for sure will be a slight advantage, so I think it could be good for us here.”
It’s a rally to be enjoyed, so let’s try and do itCraig Breen
Breen therefore believes he’s got a “really decent chance” of securing a strong result in Belgium, but won’t be applying too much pressure onto himself to achieve that.
Asked by DirtFish if he was fazed by being one of the favorites instead of coming in with less experience than his rivals, Breen said: “It’s great I’ve got a bit of a head start on the others.
“It’s nice to come here [and] not have to be working with a clean sheet of paper for all the stages so that’s definitely a big advantage. So definitely won’t try and take any pressure. It’s a rally to be enjoyed, so let’s try and do it.”