The World Rally Championship introduces already its third new event of 2021 in the form of Ypres Rally Belgium. It will have a unique character of fast but narrow countryside roads. However, it will be very tricky with bumps, ditches and muddy cuts as well as numerous surface changes and junction turns. In addition, the rally will conclude with a power stage at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Ypres is also staying true to its compact format by not starting the rally until Friday afternoon. A new challenge might come through the rally being run almost two months later than normally, with taller crops on the field affecting visibility.
Ypres Rally 2021 has curiously two shakedowns. The Non-priority drivers do their test drive already on Thursday evening at Nieuwkierke. This same stage has been used as the rally shakedown for a few years. It’s a quite fast stage with more than a handful of nice corners. The stage also ends into the town of Niuewkierke with some haybale obstacles.
The priority drivers’ shakedown is driven on Friday morning at Langemark. It’s notable for being almost 10 km long, likely the longest WRC shakedown ever? It’s a very fast stage, with long straights or flat out passages and only a handful of tight turns. There’s also some concrete surfaced roads in between, where the grip level and road edge height is different.
The actual rally won’t start until the Friday afternoon, but there’s still two four-stage loops before the night break. The stages are familiar from previous Ypres rallies and are driven around the city. At least the last stage of the day will be driven in somewhat darkness, with sundown scheduled 25 minutes after the stage starts.
SS1+5 Reninge – Vleteren has an updated configuration from earlier years. Some of the roads have not featured in the recent years, if ever. The terrain is very flat under these countryside roads. There are frequent junction turns and only few super fast sections. Apart from a quick link on a main road, it’s all narrow roads with varying surface (worn tarmac, fresh tarmac, patched up tarmac, concrete). For me Ypres is at its most interesting when the corners are not flat nor square, but something in between, and this stage has plenty of them.
SS2+6 Westouer – Boeschepe is a run just like in 2019. A curious thing about it is that it starts on Belgium’s soil but ends on France’s side! Maybe because of that, this stage has more altitude differences – uphill, downhill and crests – compared to the predominantly flat terrain of most Ypres stages. There’s also more slow and tight corners than on the previous one. Thierry Neuville’s average speed in 2019 on this stage with the WRC car was 111.4 km/h.
SS3+7 Kemmelberg has been combined with Wijtschate, creating a 23 km stage, the longest of the day. It also has some uphill and downhill, but this stage differs from others mostly by offering so many different road types. There are sections on wide main roads, one of them on concrete surface, and also slippery cobble stones, such as on the following video at 1:02 onwards (the section will be driven in the opposite direction this year). The beginning of the 2021 stage can also be seen from 3:26 to 5:30.
The middle part of the stage includes quite long very fast sections before joining the Wijtschate section. It’s again more typical Ypres with more frequent junction turns and undulating sections, but Wijtschate has usually been one of the fastest Ypres stages. This video shows one of the fast bits from the beginning to 1:15, and a nicely undulating one at 2:22 as well as the turn onto the concrete main road at 3:06. (The sections on the video from 1:15 to 2:22 and 3:39 to 4:01 are not included in 2021 stage, otherwise you can follow the onboard up to 6:23 for a preview)
SS4+8 Zonnebeke is a relatively short blast, driven exactly like in 2019. This is a very fast stage with long flat out passages and fewer junction turns. The beginning is also slightly wider than typically. The unique features of Zonnebeke include a hairpin onto a wide road going onto a bridge crossing its own route followed by a chicane. After that the road narrows and there’s a slower passage, but the ending is again very fast. Thierry Neuville’s average speed in 2019 with the WRC car was 122.9 km/h.
The Saturday stages are driven in the same areas as Friday stages. The Saturday route is slightly shorter than Friday’s and there are no night stages.
SS9+13 Hollebeke is the longest stage of the rally at 25 km of length. The configuration is almost the same as in 2014. Since 2016 the stage has been split into two separate stages of Hollebeke and Zillebeke, but now in the long format again. The beginning is quite fast with one section going through a forest. The ending has more frequent junction turns, being very angular. Towards the end there’s also a very nice undulating high-speed section over crests.
SS10+14 Dikkebus is driven just like in 2019. It’s a very archetypal Ypres stage. The first third is mostly undulating, the middle part “straights and 90’s” and the final third more frequently turning angular. At 8.7 km there’s a road crossing with a jump followed by a tricky section. Also some uphill and downhill can be found at the end of the stage. Thierry Neuville’s average speed in 2019 with the WRC car was 117.4 km/h.
SS11+15 Watou is another stage unchanged from the last edition in 2019. This is another very fast stage – Thierry Neuville’s average speed in 2019 with the WRC car was 120.9 km/h. In addition to long flat out passages, there’s also many “flat minus” corners where the cars go at the very limit of the grip. The tarmac seems very worn and bumpy at many places (of course difficult to judge only from onboards). In that sense it seems like a very difficult stage to drive at 100%.
The Saturday loop also concludes with its shortest stage, this time SS12+16 Mesen – Middelhoek, with 8 km of length. The direction is opposed from 2019, but the two previous years used this direction. The stage starts in the town of Mesen with a loop around the market square, before heading out to the countryside. After that there’s two long flat out sections with a hairpin turn in between. The last 4.3 km of the stage involves more frequent junction turns. You can follow this onboard until 3:36 where the 2021 stage will turn left. The bit from 4:03 to 4:59 is included in the 2021 stage, including the most tricky corners of the stage.
Sunday begins with a 300 km liaison to the South-East corner of the country, to the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps (mind you, the liaisons have been very sparse during the two first days). There’s two double-run stages which both start from normal countryside roads and end up into service roads of the circuit, as well as the actual racing track. These stages have not been previously a part of the Ypres Rally, but featured partly in other Belgian rallies, such as Boucles de Spa.
SS17+19 Stavelot starts on narrow roads going from village to another, with many buildings close to the road. There’s frequent junctions and tight turns in steep uphill, in a different character than on the main Ypres stages, resembling slightly Monte Carlo or Croatia.
4 km into the stage there’s a left junction into a tunnel to enter the Spa circuit area between Malmedy and Rivage corners. Then the service road follows the track inside it going backwards from Pouhon to Malmedy before entry onto the track for the last 2.7 km, ending at the Stavelot corner.
SS18+20 Francorchamps acts as the rally-concluding power stage on the second pass. The roads in the beginning are actually partly similar to the main Ypres stages, but there’s also forest sections and more altitude difference. There’s some links on wider roads, including a surprising jump into a downhill junction at 4.3 km. The section at 6.7 km meanwhile is mountainous and tricky.
The circuit is again entered through a tunnel below the track and through service roads into the pit lane, in the opposite direction to reach the back of the grid. Then the stage proceeds along the circuit until halfway of Eau Rouge, where the stage takes a hairpin left outside the track for a short finish on the new RallyX arena.
Road Conditions and Start Order
Ypres is known for its big cuts and the road will get dirty quickly. In some cases the road could already be dirty from farmers’ tractors, or just from the recce. However, the clean road benefit for the first cars lasts only for the Friday morning loop (on Saturday the restarters or slowest WRC cars will get the clean road benefit)
Sebastien Ogier will have the advantage of being first on the road, but the event is new to him. The local expert Thierry Neuville is third on the road, but he has already commented that even the two cars will pollute the road enough to compromise his performance. We can only imagine how bad it will be for Ott Tänak starting fifth, or the 2019 winner Craig Breen starting seventh.