Red Bull Motorsports
Thierry Neuville had been waiting for this. So had Hyundai Motorsport. So had Belgium. On Sunday afternoon, the wait was over.
Neuville’s victory on the Renties Ypres Rally Belgium was one of his best; he dominated the eighth round of this year’s World Rally Championship. Moreover, he realised a dream for rally fans from Belgium’s four corners.
The Ypres Rally was already seven years old when the world championship began in 1972. Since then, Belgians have looked enviously at those events sitting at the sport’s top table. Until now. Now Ypres Rally stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the best.
That was the cake. The icing? That was Neuville topping a podium positioned just a handful of kilometres from where he was born and brought up.
Finally, we won
In all honesty, good fortune had little to do with this one. Neuville was better than everybody else. His Hyundai was faster than anything else.
“I knew this was possible,” he said. “Of course I knew. I have the experience from this event, I know it better than the others. But still, it’s not an easy rally, and the competition is always high.”
Not even when his Hyundai team-mate Craig Breen lead through the opening day did Neuville look like losing. As long as he kept in touch with the Irishman, common sense and a tactical approach from the team would mean the championship-challenging Neuville would end ahead. He didn’t need any such interference on the Belgian Tarmac.
A run of four successive stage wins on Friday afternoon laid the foundations for a stunning victory.
“It’s really nice for the fans,” said Neuville. “I felt quite comfortable for the whole rally. I wasn’t taking too many risks. You always get something extra on your home round of the championship, and I got that here.
“It’s been tough at times this season, things didn’t always go for us – but now we have the win, and this is something so important for the championship. As well, I’m really proud for Martijn [Wydaeghe, co-driver]. We should have had this win on the Safari [Rally Kenya], and to have it now and to have it here is something very special.”
With that, Neuville was dragged away by family and friends desperate to share their delight at a dream come true.
Breen delivers again
For the second time in four weeks, Breen stood on the second step of the WRC podium. His pace and result add further weight to the thinking that he will step up to a full-time WRC programme for the first time in his career next year.
Breen won in Ypres last time out and admitted he’d seen the potential for a repeat result last week.
“This is a rally where you need experience,” said Breen. “This was my fifth start, and I thought another win was possible. I want this first WRC win so, so badly. This is a really important result for the team, I understand that. But I just want to win.”
And it was a hugely important result for the team. Too many times this year, Hyundai has shot itself in the foot and missed a win. For the first time since Arctic Rally Finland in February, Hyundai outscored its rival Toyota, and Neuville was able to cut into Sébastien Ogier’s lead at the top of the table.
Hyundai’s only cloud through a sunny week in Belgium was a puncture for Ott Tänak, which shoved the Estonian off the provisional podium and left him a distant sixth.
What about Toyota?
Ypres was not the happiest of hunting grounds for the Yaris WRC drivers. Having overwhelmed Hyundai with an unexpected turn of speed on the Croatian asphalt earlier this year, it was Toyota’s turn to struggle this time around.
Team principal Jari-Matti Latvala was quick to point out that the top two had plenty of Ypres experience between them, but of more concern was the fact that Ogier and Elfyn Evans couldn’t find a set-up that gave them both grip and confidence for the duration of the rally. In fact, the highest-flying Yaris was that of last month’s Rally Estonia winner Kalle Rovanperä. Having crashed out of the championship lead in spectacular fashion in Croatia earlier this year, the Finn started the season’s second Tarmac rally cautiously. Once he found his rhythm, the 20-year-old got faster and faster, moving past his more illustrious team-mates and into third.
He delivered the best result possible.
“I’m really proud for this,” he said. “We know the two guys ahead have been here, so to be the first ones who haven’t competed on this rally before is really good.”
Evans edged Ogier for fourth place, but the championship leader still managed to extend his advantage by a single point from the Welshman, who now shares second place with Neuville.