Home hero produces plucky comeback drive as championship leader Rovanperä rolls out.
Thierry Neuville produced a plucky comeback drive to head up a Hyundai Motorsport 1-2 on Friday afternoon at Ypres Rally Belgium.
Just 2.5sec separated Neuville and team-mate Ott Tänak at the end of a frenetic opening leg on treacherous asphalt lanes in the Flanders region of northern Belgium.
Neuville’s day got off to a wobbly start when he dropped more than 10 seconds with a costly overshoot in the first stage and the situation showed signs of worsening as he fought with car set-up throughout the morning.
The Belgian driver complained the differential settings on his i20 N were causing the brakes to lock up under braking, and he trailed Elfyn Evans by 8.8sec in third overall at the mid-leg halt.
After making several set-up tweaks, Neuville emerged from service a brand-new man. With newfound confidence in the car, he and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe stormed to fastest times on all four of the afternoon’s speed tests - leapfrogging Tänak and Evans in the process.
"It's been a whole different afternoon in terms of the handling with the car,” Neuville explained. “I am so much happier now.
“I feel like I have seen some areas where we can improve and find a bit more speed, but overall we can be very happy with our afternoon.
“Our weather team has done an amazing job with some very precise information and I have felt confident to trust their predictions. That's very important on a day like this," he added.
Aside from a few set-up niggles of his own, Tänak’s day went without drama. He never strayed outside the top three stage times all day and held the runner-up spot from the second test onwards.
The same couldn’t be said for Toyota star Evans, who led for most of the leg after team-mate and championship leader Kalle Rovanperä rolled into retirement on SS2.
He was forced to bolt a single wet weather tyre onto his Yaris after damaging one of his slicks on SS6. Reduced performance on the dry roads allowed Neuville into the lead and a 10sec time penalty for a late check-in compounded his frustrations.
“We lost one of our slick tyres and had to use a rain tyre, which was obviously not ideal in these conditions,” he explained. “The penalty was no big issue - just a minor error - but one in four years is not bad.”
Tyre choice was a key talking point for the second loop. Dark clouds threatened downpours - but heavy rain never arrived.
While the leading trio carried packages more suited to dry conditions, the rest of the field dropped time with combinations taken in the hope of wet weather.
Espekka Lappi joked he was “leading the class for the wrong tyres” and brought his Yaris home 23.6sec back from the podium. He had 18.8sec in hand over M-Sport Ford man Craig Breen, who held fifth overall despite an overshoot early in the day.
Breen’s Puma colleague Gus Greensmith ended more than half a minute back in sixth ahead of Oliver Solberg, who battled gearbox niggles on his Hyundai.
Saturday's leg is extremely compact and squeezes eight more treacherous tests covering 135.83km into a 269.05km route.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N 49min 50.1sec
2. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N +2.5sec
3. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris +13.7sec
4. E Lappi / J Ferm FIN Toyota GR Yaris +37.3sec
5. C Breen / P Nagle IRL Ford Puma +56.1sec
6. G Greensmith / J Andersson GBR Ford Puma +1min 34.5sec