Ott Tanak, take a bow. Despite the odds being somewhat stacked against him, he drove that Hyundai i20 Rally1 to an impressive win while big names crashed out all around him.
Before going to Ypres, I knew it wouldn't have quite the same spectacle as the fast, flowing gravel rallies such as Finland. However, where this tarmac round lacked in dynamic on-stage action, it made up for in speed, accessibility and atmosphere.
Belgium is a country I've only set foot in twice, and on both occasions I was only passing through going to and from Germany, so spending some time here was enticing in itself. Ypres is a stunning town with beautiful architecture and is remarkably clean. So a full blown service park sitting slap bang in the middle of it all did look comically out of place.
Despite the eyesore, a rally HQ in the towns centre square offered unrivalled access for spectators, I don't think there is any other rally on the planet that allows you enjoy an evening meal while watching M-Sport spanner on their rally cars. Towards the outskirts of the town many of the Rally2, Rally3 and national setups can be found so there is a constant buzz of highly strung engines as cars pass through the city to their respective homes.
After enjoying a delicious brunch in the town centre, it was time to make our way south of Ypres for the Thursday afternoon shakedown stage. Unlike any other WRC round I've been to, access is outstanding and we could park the rental just a few hundred metres from the stage.
The section I'd chosen featured a flat-out straight with cars bouncing off the limiter before they hit the brakes hard, turned left through a crossroads and made their way towards us spectating on the outside of a tricky right-left kink with a big cut on the inside and inviting ditch on the outside.
The beauty of shakedown is you get to see multiple runs of each Rally1 car, giving fantastic return on investment for spectators.
The real action began on Friday morning and a relatively late start for a world championship round with first car due at 10AM. This was a blessing in disguise as there was no need for crack-of-dawn 5AM alarms to get into the forests before access roads became full.
The Toyota of Kalle Rovanpera was noticeably fast through this section with cars hitting a recorded 196kph before negotiating a fast jink left and disappearing out of sight. Unfortunately for Kalle, this would be the last time he'd set rally winning pace as on SS2, he under steered into a ditch and crashed out.
We'd been expecting rain at some stage on Friday but we didn't expect it to fall as early as the final stage of the morning loop. Oliver Solberg got the raw end of the stick as the clouds opened just as he launched off the line on full slicks. After watching the first few cars hurtle past, it was odd to see him tip-toe through at walking pace.
A quick lunch and we're back on the first stage of the loop, this time just a few KMs from the finish, spectating the exit of a slow, heavily polluted right hand bend. For whatever reason, the local Police took exception to a bunch of spectators standing in a perfectly safe location, and hovered their helicopter a few feet off the ground in protest, showering everyone in dirt and debris. While safety is important on the stages, it must be enforced correctly and sensibly and this wasn't it.
I was keen to see some of the national entry as there was a healthy dose of BMW E30 M3s in action, so we high-tailed it from stage 4 to stage 7, arriving just in time to catch the zero car. Unlike the previous stage, there were very few spectators here and the marshals were relaxed and accommodating, allowing us to move freely between a few vantage points on the stage. It turned out to be a fantastic end to day one.
After the changeable conditions experienced on Friday, Saturday morning arrived with glorious sunshine and a welcoming 11AM start. Stage 10 was just a few hundred metres from our AirBnB, the start-line in the same village of Westouter so we didn't have far to go. Our Irish crew, Craig & Paul, passed with noticeable haste, on a huge push and setting fastest splits but their pace would come to an equally as swift stop just a few KM after our vantage point with the Puma on its roof in a ditch.
I knew about this fast, up-hill section prior to travelling to the rally and it seemed that half of Belgium knew about it too. The ditch was lined 3 deep with fans trampling down corn fields and hyping each other up. Unfortunately, it also attracted the attention of the stage marshals who weren't so enthusiastic and forced us to leave the section before all the Rally1 cars had passed through. On a rally renowned for its no-nonsense approach to spectators, we'd done well so far so, despite two bad experiences.
One of the issues with trying to cram as many stages as possible into the day is you are very limited with how far into the stage you can walk. You have to compromise with choosing a spot that has good access to leave early but also offers a great view of the cars. Our view of SS13 was pretty boring to say the least but it did offer a chance to get some good 'corner cutting' photographs.
While stage 13 might have been slow and dull, the final stage of the day made up for it in spades. The cars approached into this woodland area absolutely flat out, dropping deep into two big left-hand cuts that shot the car upwards and out towards the edge of the road in dramatic fashion. The noise of under-tray smashing into the tarmac is staggering and the raw, visceral pace was very impressive.
If you're like me and spend considerable amounts of time on YouTube, you've probably come across some 'WRC road section / tyre warm-up procedure' videos. I've always been keen to try and see the drivers prepare on the road-section prior to a stage - we tried this in Finland last year but lucked out. So on Sunday morning, with nine stages already under our belts, we sacrificed the first pass over the Kemmelberg to see the top drivers prepare.
It's intriguing to see the little procedures and rituals each driver goes through. Thierry Neuville was as relaxed as ever, Takamoto Katsuta closed his eyes to settle his mind into a very Japanese state of zen and Adrien Fourmoux fidgeted and danced about in typical French fashion, which is probably why he threw the Puma off the road at high speed just a few KMs later.
Ott Tanak, just a few hours from his third win of the season, was in ice-cold form. He made no attempt to hide the fact he didn't want to be photographed and harassed by fans but instead was buried in his phone watching All-Live until the last second. It's no wonder this man shows absolutely insane pace on the stages.
SS20 Kemmelberg (Power Stage)
It's sort of ironic that the purpose of the power stage is to get drivers competing for the TV on one final push for extra championship points while in reality it is a pretty lacklustre ending to the rally. At this point, time battles have been won and the priority is to bring the car home so really its only those with nothing to lose that really go for it. Kalle Rovanpera with a clean road and nobody near him blitzed the time-sheets and took a deserving 5 points.
Four long days in Ypres over and my first tarmac WRC event complete. There is absolutely no doubt this rally is one of the easiest and most rewarding to spectate but when you've experienced high-speed gravel, it just isn't the same. For me, these cars are at their most impressive when sideways, at the top of fifth and at least one wheel in the air and on the narrow farmland lanes of North-west Belgium, they were a little too subdued.
Rally aside, it was amazing to see Ypres, the Menin Gate and the many war memorials scattered throughout the countryside. Almost every 10km there's a reminder that less than 100 years ago the sound of anti-lag was replaced with gun-fire across the colourful farmland and it was humbling to see so many names inscribed on the monuments. We must never forget.
Event: WRC Ypres 2022
Location: Ypres, Belgium