Belgium WRC: Neuville closes on win, puncture halts Ogier

Thierry Neuville further extended his Rally Ypres lead to edge closer to a home World Rally Championship win, while a puncture dented title rival Sebastien Ogier’s charge for a podium.  

The local hero produced a faultless drive on the first run through Sunday’s stages, based around Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix venue Spa-Francorchamps.

Neuville managed to increase his 10.1s overnight advantage to 14.9s, helped by a mistake for nearest rival and teammate Craig Breen, who clipped a bank on the day’s first stage.

Only 4.3s covered Toyota trio Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanpera and championship leader Ogier in the battle for third before the start of action.

However, a win on the day’s first stage and a strong run on the second stage for Rovanpera saw him take third overall, opening up a 3.9s gap over Evans. But Ogier’s podium hopes were dented by a puncture on the first stage that has left him 14.1s adrift of third.

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak claimed victory on Stage 18 but remains in sixth overall. 

Crews completed a three-hour drive from Ypres to Spa-Francorchamps this morning for the final four stages of the rally.

The first stage of the morning saw the field tackle narrow tarmac country roads before entering the Belgian Grand Prix venue at Les Combes with the stage finish at Stavelot corner.

Rovanpera emerged fastest, boosting his hopes of snatching third overall from teammate Evans as the Finn closed the gap to 1.7s.

Ogier’s hopes of stealing the podium from the pair of them was severely dented when he ran wide over a rocky exit of a corner that triggered a left rear puncture. The Frenchman ended the stage 8.2s off the pace, dropping him 10.9s behind third-placed Evans in overall standings. 

Tanak was second-fastest while leader Neuville enjoyed a trouble free run to third on the stage.

However, there was drama for the second-placed teammate Breen as he dropped six seconds to Neuville after clipping a bank during the stage, but luckily the Irishman avoided any significant damage.

The second stage of the morning featured a run through the village of Ster before finishing at the Spa with a pass through the circuit’s pit lane and Eau Rouge section, before finishing on the Rallycross circuit.    

After a 20 minute delay to ensure spectator safety, it was Tanak who starred to claim his second stage win of the event, pipping Rovanpera by 0.5s.

"To drive in this place would be on the bucket list, but I would say in something with 500 more horsepower would be a bit better,” said Tanak.

Breen clawed back some of the time he lost on the opening stage to Neuville to finish the stage third ahead of the rally leader.

However, Evans lost third overall to Rovanpera after a slow run to sixth fastest on the test.

“I was just too wild in the previous one and tried to tidy it up, but obviously not pushing hard enough now. We'll keep going,” said Evans.

In WRC2, Jari Huttunen has taken over the lead in the class after overnight leader Oliver Solberg was forced to retire when his Hyundai failed to start at service park this morning.

The Spa-Francorchamps stages will be repeated later this morning to conclude Rally Ypres.

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