Thierry Neuville remained firmly on course for an emotional home victory at Ypres Rally Belgium after a fast and furious second leg on Saturday.
Hunting a first win of the FIA World Rally Championship season, Neuville heads Hyundai i20 World Rally Car team-mate Craig Breen by 10.1sec with a day remaining at this eighth round.
After Friday’s frantic fight in Flanders’ asphalt farm lanes, after which they were separated by 7.6sec, the pair were again in a class of their own on narrow fast roads south of Ypres.
Breen threw down the gauntlet to win the opening two speed tests and trim the deficit to 3.5sec. Neuville fought back to beat the Irishman in the next two and reach mid-leg service with his lead up to 6.8sec.
He added two more stage wins this afternoon compared to Breen’s one, extending his advantage as the Hyundai drivers appeared content to hold position while a trio of Toyota Yaris cars fought for the final podium place behind.
Hyundai restarted with a podium lockout but Ott Tänak dropped three minutes in the opening test stopping to change a puncture. A faulty jack added to the Estonian’s woes as he plunged to sixth.
Instead Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanperä and championship leader Sébastien Ogier battled all day for third and were covered by 4.3sec at the close. Welshman Evans won one morning stage and Ogier scored two fastest times this afternoon.
Evans finished more than half a minute adrift of Breen but with a crucial 3.3sec in hand over Rovanperä. Ogier was unhappy on dirty roads this morning but felt more comfortable this afternoon and closed to within 1.0sec of the young Finn.
Toyota’s challenge was down to three after Takamoto Katsuta crashed heavily in the morning Dikkebus stage. The Japanese driver hit a bump in a fast corner which threw his Yaris into a ditch. He and co-driver Keaton Williams were unhurt but their rally was over.
Pierre-Louis Loubet also retired when the Frenchman drifted wide into a ditch on the exit of a tight right corner in Hollebeke and his i20 could not be retrieved.
Their demise promoted new FIA WRC3 leader Sébastien Bedoret into seventh in a Škoda Fabia. The Belgian eased ahead of category championship leader Yohan Rossel from France by 0.9sec. Local driver Pieter Jan Michiel Cracco was ninth with fellow countryman Vincent Verschueren completing the leaderboard.
In the Junior WRC Championship, Jon Armonstrong continues to lead the category ahead of Sami Pajari in 2nd, with a comfortable advantage of over one minute. Robert Virves completes the overnight podium.
The focus now switches 300km east for Sunday’s finale at the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, near the German border. Two identical stages are driven twice, covering 40.52km, mixing country roads with iconic track sections such as Eau Rouge, Raidillon and Malmedy. The rally ends with bonus points available in the Power Stage.
The provisional standings can be consulted here.