WRC Belgium: The Good, The Bad and the Bizarre

Belgium became the 36th nation to host a World Rally Championship event as the famous Ypres Rally provided a new unique asphalt challenge in Thierry Neuville’s homeland. Autosport reviews the highlights, lowlights, turning points, close calls and heartbreak that made round eight of the 2021 season

WRC Belgium: The Good, The Bad and the Bizarre

Top Performer - Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe

It’s an obvious choice, but it is impossible to overlook Ypres Rally winners Thierry Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe. They were supreme in every department.

The Hyundai Motorsport pair were under huge pressure to deliver in front of a expectant home crowd, heading into the event as overwhelming favourites given their knowledge of Ypres’ unique bend of narrow varying grip asphalt roads, bordered by treacherous ditches.

On top of the pressure to deliver as the local favourites, it really was a must-win for Hyundai - having led the previous four rallies, only for likely victories to vanish through misfortune and reliability woes. Even team boss Andrea Adamo admitted he was feeling the heat.

PLUS: How Hyundai's home hero delivered overdue WRC success in Belgium

A steady start on Friday morning before a string of four stage wins on the bounce set up a 7.6-second overnight lead preceded a series of controlled drives, picking up three more stage wins across Saturday and Sunday to record a memorable victory. It was his first since last year’s Monte Carlo Rally.

Neuville crossed the flying finish at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit, 30.7s ahead of Craig Breen for a Hyundai 1-2 that was just what the doctor had ordered.

The only reliability issue of the entire rally concerned a non-mechanical component: "I was fighting like hell with my glasses – they were slipping all the time,” he said on Friday. 

In all seriousness, given the context and the pressure surrounding the event, this will go down as one of Neuville’s best WRC drives to date. It also could be the turning point that re-ignites the championship as the Belgian has moved up to second - tied with Toyota’s Elfyn Evans - with four events remaining, 38 points behind long-time rival Sebastien Ogier. Game on.

Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Honourable Mentions - Craig Breen and Kalle Rovanpera

Adamo's decision to issue Neuville and Breen with “warm recommendations” robbed the neutral of a true fight for victory between the pair.

In another universe, Breen - who is driving a partial season in Hyundai's third car that he shares with Dani Sordo - could easily have won this rally, such was his impressive pace and knowledge of the event that he previously won in 2019.

However, he played the team role brilliantly and secured back-to-back WRC podiums for the first time in his career. It was another shot in the arm for his bid to snare a full-time seat next year.

Finally, Kalle Rovanpera delivered a hugely impressive drive considering he’d crashed out of the last tarmac event - Rally Croatia - on the opening day back in April. Fresh from scoring his maiden win in Estonia, the Finn turned heads to beat far more experienced team-mates Evans and Ogier to third.

Ott Tänak, Hyundai Motorsport

Ott Tänak, Hyundai Motorsport

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

Moment of heartbreak - Ott Tanak

Ott Tanak must have walked under several ladders this year to warrant the luck he has endured. The 2019 world champion’s nightmare title campaign received a further blow when a puncture on Saturday’s opening stage robbed him of a likely third place finish.

This follows suspension failures in Portugal and Sardinia while leading comfortably and a double puncture that ended his Estonia tilt, an event he was favourite to win.

Pieter Tsjoen's WRC3 Volkswagen hit trouble on Stage 9

Pieter Tsjoen's WRC3 Volkswagen hit trouble on Stage 9

Lucky Escapes

Stage 9 was cancelled after the top line crews had passed when WRC3 competitor Pieter Tsjoen and co-driver Eddy Chevaillier crashed into the side of a house that lined the stage. The local crew were reported to be okay and were taken to hospital for precautionary checks.

The driver emerged unscathed, while it has now been confirmed that Chevaillier sustained a fractured vertebra - but is expected to make a full recovery. The VW Polo GTI pair were lucky considering the size of the impact, highlighting the much improved safety standard of the current cars.

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux were also fortunate to escape without serious injury after two huge accidents that ended their rallies prematurely.

Fourmaux was caught out by a slippery left-hander on Stage 3 that forced him wide and into a ditch, triggering a series of wild pirouettes.

 

Katsuta's accident was similar, although numerous rolls had brought down a telegraph pole that blocked the road and necessitated a red flag to clear the stage.

Team of the week - Oliver Solberg and Aaron Johnston

WRC2 pairing Oliver Solberg and Aaron Johnston displayed teamwork of the highest order in difficult circumstances when the power steering failed on the brand-new Hyundai i20 Rally2 car they were debuting.

With Solberg forced to use all of his strength to keep the i20 on the narrow strip of road, co-driver Johnston was required to pull the handbrake - under instruction from Solberg - to help navigate the car through the litany of tight junctions. As they say, teamwork makes the dream work.

 

Top Tweets

It may have divided opinion, given it required crews to drive three hours from Ypres, but for Sunday’s final stages incorporating the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit certainly provided some spectacular footage.

 

Current WRC2 driver-turned-WRC Live television pundit Mads Ostberg provided arguably the quote of the event.

Ostberg described Evans as like “a cat getting ready to jump onto your kitchen table to steal your food” when an onboard camera captured the Welshman preparing to enter a stage.

 

Hot Shots

Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Gus Greensmith, Chris Patterson, M-Sport Ford WRT Ford Fiesta WRC

Gus Greensmith, Chris Patterson, M-Sport Ford WRT Ford Fiesta WRC

Photo by: M-Sport

Podium: Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, second place Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, third place Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC

Podium: Winner Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, second place Craig Breen, Paul Nagle, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC, third place Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

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