Ott Tänak stormed has won Ypres Rally Belgium to seal back-to-back FIA World Rally Championship victories.
The Estonian driver, co-driven by compatriot Martin Järveoja, inherited the top spot late on the penultimate day when Hyundai i20 N Rally1 team-mate and long-time leader Thierry Neuville understeered off the road and into a ditch, shattering the Belgian’s hopes of a repeat home win.
Tänak – winner of Secto Rally Finland earlier this month – carried an 8.2s buffer over Elfyn Evans into Sunday’s final leg, which comprised four short and sharp asphalt stages in the Flanders region.
Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 star Evans was not willing to give up without a fight. He flew to fastest times on the two opening stages, but was still unable to make any major gains on the leader.
It was a similar story in the afternoon and, despite outpacing his rival by 2.2s in the finale, the Welshman was unable to overhaul Tänak, who took the spoils by 5.0s.
Tänak’s success means he now trails championship leader Kalle Rovanperä – who rolled his Yaris out of contention on Friday morning – by 72 points. The 21-year-old Finn salvaged five Wolf Power Stage bonus points and remains on track to become the youngest WRC champion in history.
The Manufacturers’ championship situation remains unchanged, with Tänak’s Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team squad still 88 points adrift of leaders Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT.
“To win here is a big surprise for us – more or less the same as it was in Finland,” said Tänak. “We didn’t expect it from anywhere basically, but somehow we were able to pull it together during the rally.
“It’s great to see that some results are coming, but there is so much we can improve and we could still be a lot stronger, so there is still some work to do,” he added.
For Evans, it was a case of what could have been. He gave away valuable seconds on Friday when a slow puncture forced him to run a wet weather tyre in dry conditions. He was also lumbered with a 10s time penalty for arriving late to SS8. Without that, the outcome could have been different.
Esapekka Lappi made it two GR Yaris cars on the podium – securing a lonely third at the end of a trouble-free weekend where a wrong-call tyre selection on Friday was the only real bump in the road.
He trailed Evans by 1m36.6s but held a comfortable 1m46.9s advantage over fourth-placed Hyundai youngster Oliver Solberg, who netted a career-best result to banish all memories of his early retirement last time out.
Solberg was initially locked in a tight scrap with M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Adrien Fourmaux. However, the Puma driver crashed out on the penultimate stage, enabling those behind to gain a position.
Over two minutes back was Takamoto Katsuta, who continued his consistent run of form to take fifth overall in another Yaris. Although transmission and hybrid unit faults plagued the Japanese driver, he has now finished inside the top six at every round since Sweden in February.
Rally2 cars completed the top 10, with FIA WRC2 victor Stéphane Lefebvre leading the charge in a DG Sport Citroën C3 Rally2 ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen (Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo, Yohan Rossel (PH Sport Citroën) and Chris Ingram (Toksport Škoda), who won the WRC2 Junior division. Armin Kremer took WRC2 Masters glory, while Jan Černý topped FIA WRC3 in a Ford Fiesta Rally3.
Drivers are back on gravel next month for the legendary EKO Acropolis Rally Greece. The event is based in Lamia and is scheduled to run from September 8-11.