Thierry Neuville heads to this weekend’s Ypres Rally Belgium looking to end his 2022 FIA World Rally Championship win drought with victory on his home asphalt.
Twelve months ago Neuville earned an emotional win after leading from start to finish on Belgium’s WRC debut. But as the WRC’s all-new hybrid era gets underway, the Hyundai Motorsport driver’s 2022 campaign has been marred by disappointment as the Korean manufacturer struggles to find the consistency and reliability to challenge the pace-setting Toyota Gazoo Racing squad. Two podiums early in the year have been his best results to date, so the desire – and pressure – to pull out a big result in his i20 N Rally1 on roads he knows well is immense.
Heading into this ninth of 13 rounds, the 34-year-old from St. Vith sits third in the WRC standings, but trails Toyota’s championship leader Kalle Rovanpera by 95 points. If there was ever a place for Neuville to try and close that gap and keep his long-shot title aspirations alive, it’s here. And with a maximum of 30 points up for grabs on each of the remaining rallies, that can only mean winning.
Neuville, a five-time runner-up in the WRC drivers’ standings, but never the champ, made six starts in Ypres before its promotion to the WRC last year, making him the most experienced out of all the top-level drivers. He knows exactly what it takes to be quick on the narrow farm lanes of the Flanders region which make up the three-day fixture, Aug. 19-21.
The stages are littered with tight bends and lined by drainage ditches and telegraph poles. Big cuts in corners mean mud and debris will be dragged onto the asphalt, making conditions progressively dirtier.
“This is probably the event that we’re looking forward to the most this season,” Neuville says. “I’ve got good memories here and I can’t wait to be back.
“We’re finally heading to asphalt again after a run of tricky gravel rallies, and we hope to return to winning ways. There is only one goal: to repeat our victory from last year.”
As expected, Neuville put down an early marker in Thursday’s official pre-rally Shakedown, setting a 3m44.4s fastest time to edge Rovanpera by a useful 0.6s, with Hyundai teammate Oliver Solberg a further 0.7s behind on the 4.56-mile Nieuwkerke test stage.
Neuville and Swedish youngster Solberg are joined in Hyundai’s three-car i20 N Rally1 squad by Ott Tanak, who’s fresh off a stunning victory on high-speed Rally Finland and holds second in the WRC points. The trio are keen to slice away at Toyota Gazoo Racing’s 88-point manufacturers’ championship lead.
Season pace-setter Rovanpera was chasing local boy Neuville in the shakedown. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT
Rovanpera is joined in a four-car GR Yaris Rally1 attack by Welshman Elfyn Evans, fellow Finn Esapekka Lappi and Japanese development driver Takamoto Katsuta.
With five wins from eight 2022 starts, 21-year-old Rovanpera is well on track to becoming the youngest WRC champion in history. He could seal the title this weekend, but it’s unlikely. Even if Rovanpera takes 25 points for the win and grabs a maximum five bonus points from the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage, he will be reliant on both Tanak and Neuville having a disastrous event and scoring next to nothing.
“I’m feeling good about going to Belgium,” says Rovanpera, whose points lead means he’ll be first car on the stages for Friday’s opening leg. “If it’s dry then we saw last year that it can be a bit dusty for the first cars, but if it’s wet then it should be perfect for us to be the first on the road.”
Former Ypres winner – albeit in its pre-WRC days – Craig Breen leads M-Sport Ford’s charge alongside Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux in a trio of Puma Rally1 machines. Sixth in points, Irishman Breen will be looking to use his Ypres experience to put momentum back into a campaign that’s delivered accident-marred 30th and 32nd-place finishes in the last two events.
Breen, here negotiating some of the unusual in-town runs during the shakedown, hopes to rekindle old Ypres magic for his M-Sport Ford team. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ Andreas Mikkelsen is back in action after skipping Rally Finland as one of his seven counting rounds. In five starts so far, the Norwegian has notched up three wins and two engine-related DNFs in his Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo, and narrowly leads the points from Ypres absentee Kajetan Kajetanowicz. But the Polish driver has only started four rounds so far, meaning he’ll have three more points-scoring opportunities post-Ypres, compared to Mikkelsen’s one remaining start, which will be Acropolis Rally Greece.
“We had a good test last week and I feel like the Skoda is particularly strong on these kinds of roads,” says Mikkelsen. “For us to win the championship, I think we have to try and win in Ypres, and also in Greece — there’s no other choice.
“Kajetanowicz is probably going to do Japan and New Zealand, so he could potentially have two easy wins there. But our retirements mean that, whatever happens, we will already have one zero score in our total tally. So my goal this week is very simple — we need to win.”
Only a win will do for Mikkelsen in WRC2. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
To do that, Mikkelsen must beat a strong WRC2 field that includes Yohan Rossel. The Frenchman returns for his fifth event of the season after a three-rally absence, but is still fourth in points after two early season wins in his Citroen C3.
Watch out, too, for Belgian veteran Freddy Loix. The 51-year-old WRC veteran has been running a limited WRC2 program in a self-entered Skoda, but an astonishing 11 Ypres Rally wins in its pre-WRC days means he shouldn’t be counted out.
The WRC Ypres Rally Belgium action starts Friday morning, Aug. 19, with eight mainly short special stages covering 60.29 competitive miles packed into the fast and furious opening leg. The action never strays further than 15 miles from the host city of Ypres.
Eight more stages and 82.78 competitive miles make up Saturday’s equally frenetic second leg, before two passes through Watou and Kemmelberg comprise Sunday’s 31.90-mile finale, with the second run through Kemmelberg as the bonus-points paying Wolf Power Stage.
Question is, after those 20 stages and 174.97 competitive miles, will local hero Neuville be standing on the top step of the podium as the repeat winner of Ypres Rally Belgium?
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.