Neuville wins at last - in Belgium!

Round 8 of the 2021 championship was the Renties Ypres Rally Belgium, an event founded as 24-Hours of Ypes in 1965. Twenty smooth tarmac stages totaling 296 Km over 13-15th August and characterized by narrow and twisty farm lanes lined by uncompromising drainage ditches, culverts, telegraph poles and lots of tight 90º junctions. Big corner cuts drag mud and debris onto the road, making conditions slippery. A compact route with very little time to pause for breath and Ypres's first WRC year.

From the start, Thierry Neuville and Hyundai team-mate Craig Breen, winner of 2019 Ypres as a ERC round, headed the Friday opening leg. Fastest times on all three evening special stages (the final test cancelled for safety reasons) delivered the Belgian a 7.6sec lead over Breen with Ott Tänak completing a Hyundai podium lockout in third. Neuville's only problem? His trademark specs slipped down his nose disrupting his concentration but clearly not slowing his pace, the Hyundai quartet blanketed by 8.2sec. Kalle Rovanperä, headed a 16-wheel Toyota juggernaut in fourth, 1.4sec adrift and just eight-tenths clear of a frustrated Elfyn Evans, who he demoted in the final stage.

Championship leader Ogier completed the top six, losing time with a puncture and a tad uncomfortable with his car's set-up, but changes at mid-leg service left the Frenchman happier after the evening action. Takamoto Katsuta was seventh, but it was a disastrous opening for Adrien Fourmaux M-Sport Ford who retired in SS3 after clipping a bank and launching his Fiesta into a huge roll, while Gus Greensmith exited just 200 metres after the start of the next stage when he dropped his Fiesta into a ditch.

Saturday's leg featured another compact day south of Ypres covering 119.92km of stages. Four morning tests beginning with Hollebeke, at 25.86km the longest of the rally and repeated in the afternoon but Thierry Neuville was not going to be denied his home WRC victory and clinched his first win of the FIA World Rally Championship season on Sunday afternoon. He had led for virtually the entire event and fended off a fierce first-day challenge from team-mate Craig Breen. The Hyundai i20 duo then settled a synchronised finish after three days and almost 300km of action on narrow Flanders farm lanes and the famous Spa-Francorchamps race circuit.

After finishing the final stage at Spa, a relieved Neuville celebrated victory with a series of donuts, a fitting home victory on Belgium's first WRC round: "It was a pleasure for me to give this first win to Martijn here in Belgium. It should have come earlier, but we were unlucky. It feels good here now." Neuville's victory marked a first WRC win for co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe and revived Neuville's title challenge, now tying for second in the championship standings with Elfyn Evans.

Irishman Breen, for whom this was only his second asphalt appearance in an i20 World Rally Car, secured back-to-back runner-up finishes after a similar result in Estonia last month. Kalle Rovanperä finished third for Toyota after coming out on top of a frantic intra-team fight with Evans and Ogier. The young Finn traded places with Evans all rally and regained third before holding off the frustrated Welshman by 6.5sec.

Ogier's hopes of a podium place were ended by a Sunday morning puncture, but there was consolation for the Frenchman as he extended his lead in the drivers? championship to 38 points with four rounds remaining. He ended 6.2sec behind Evans. Tänak was a distant sixth after falling away from the victory fight with a Saturday morning puncture. WRC3 winner Yohan Rossel was a superb seventh in a Citroën C3 Rally 2 ahead of second-placed category finisher Pieter Jan Michiel Cracco. Fabian Kreim and Vincent Verschueren completed the leaderboard.

Neuville, Breen and Tänak won 15 of the 20 Ypres stages between them for Hyundai and the 1-2 finish enabled the team to reduce Toyota's lead in the manufacturers' championship to 41 points. Drivers are back on gravel next month as Acropolis Rally Greece returns to the WRC for the first time since 2013, based in Lamia 9-12th September. With four wins from eight 2021 events, who'd bet against another world championship for Ogier in the wily Frenchman's swan-song year?

Driver's Championship after 8 of 12 rounds

1.Sebastien Ogier 162
=2.Elfyn Evans 124
=2.Thierry Neuville 124
4.Kalle Rovanpera 99
5.Ott Tanak 87
6.Takamoto Katsuta 66
7.Craig Breen 60
8.Gus Greensmith 34

Manufacturers Championship

1.Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 348
2.Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT 307
3.M-Sport Ford WRT 135
4.Hyundai 2C Competition 44

17th August, 2021