Belgium’s Ypres Rally holds a fearsome reputation. A reputation that had fans celebrating when its 2021 World Rally Championship addition was confirmed back in January.
While fans revel in Belgium’s carnival rally, many of WRC’s mainstay drivers will instead be pondering that fearsome reputation as they make their Ypres debut.
It’s a narrative echoed by the lack of WRC 2 and WRC 3 regulars. There aren’t too many drivers confident of blowing the field away this weekend.
As for WRC’s top tier, Theirry Neuville will feel a home advantage like his team-mate Ott Tanak did when Rally Estonia made its WRC debut just under a year ago.
It is a rarity to have so few drivers with existing event experience. For those that have sampled Ypres’ unique challenge, they’ll surely hold the upper hand.
This is where the best of the Irish come into contention:
Defending Ypres Rally winner Craig Breen, two-time winning co-driver Paul Nagle, two-time finisher Josh McErlean, and three-time entrant William Creighton.
The only category missing, WRC 2, is covered by Aaron Johnston as he debuts Hyundai’s Rally2 i20 alongside Oliver Solberg.
So, could Ireland be represented on the podium of every WRC class come Sunday afternoon? It’s a tough ask but here is how it might just happen.
Craig Breen and Paul Nagle
As always, Craig Breen leads Ireland’s ever-growing list of world rally stars. Hyundai’s part-time WRC pilot has competed on the Belgian classic four times in his career. His most-recent appearance was a near start-to-finish victory ahead of 2017 winner Kevin Abbring, 2018 Belgian Rally Champion Kris Princen, and 11-time Ypres Rally winner Freddy Loix.
“It’s definitely one of the most interesting and specialised rallies you’ll ever do,” said Breen. “On paper, it seems to be a strange profile of event but when you are in the car it is an amazing challenge.
“At pretty much every junction, the surface is a little bit different; it’s an event I really look forward to and it’s a rally worthy of World Rally Championship status.”
Breen’s last asphalt world rally did not go as planned and the Waterford native will be hoping his recent time behind the wheel of Hyundai’s i20 WRC has him more up to speed than before April’s Croatia Rally.
One should not underestimate the amount of preparation Breen will have completed before Ypres Rally Belgium. He’ll benefit from having onboards of his previous visits to Flanders and if there is an advantage to be gained from watching them, no doubt Breen will have sapped every ounce of learning from them.
With a line-up filled with tarmac aces, an impressive result this weekend will be a healthy top-up to Breen’s runner-up finish in Estonia.
Finnish, Swedish, and Russian crews make up Ypres Rally’s WRC 2 line-up and will perhaps feel a bit out of their comfort zone as they cut through those infamous junctions.
It is also a line-up of crews looking for a turn in fortune with Solberg and Johnston seeking their first WRC podium of the year.
The performance of their new Rally2 specification i20 will be one to watch with intrigue.
Josh McErlean and James Fulton
In WRC 3, Josh McErlean and James Fulton find themselves in the middle of a raft of local experts. No fewer than 15 Belgians have entered Ypres’ WRC 3 category and could well be the quickest names behind those starting in World Rally Cars.
McErlean has Ypres experience from his British Rally Championship days, albeit in front-wheel-drive, and is out for a good result on his second world rally of this season.
“It’s nice to finally have some previous experience of the roads we will be competing on,” said McErlean, “and that really does boost the confidence to push on.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time now and it should be a great chance for a result.”
William Creighton and Jon Armstrong continue their Junior WRC campaigns this weekend. Ypres is the championship’s penultimate round with Spain’s asphalt roads capping off a thrilling season in October.
The two Northern Irish drivers will start Ypres with different mindsets but both are equally capable of pulling off the perfect result in Belgium.
William Creighton and Liam Regan
Creighton and co-driver Liam Regan have taken a steady approach to Junior WRC this year. Tackling treacherous rallies that they’ve never experienced before has pushed them to err on the side of caution.
Ypres is different for the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver, however. Like McErlean, Creighton will benefit from his BRC visits to Ypres. This will be his fourth start on Ypres.
“Having that knowledge of what to expect certainly helps to hit the ground running,” explained Creighton. “But it goes without saying that this is probably my best chance for a good result this season.
“Having said that, the pace of the guys out front is pretty special, so we do need to manage those expectations before getting caught up in pushing for a top result.”
Jon Armstrong and Phil Hall
As for Armstrong his Ypres experience only extends to completing the recce six years ago. His focus is firmly fixed on a close championship battle with Sami Pajari and Martins Sesks. 15 points separate the three drivers with a huge 114 points still on offer.
“We are coming close to the end of the championship now so results are going to be crucial,” said Armstrong.
“For us having a retirement in Portugal means we need to continue having a strong run. I don’t necessarily think we need to win the rally to win the championship.
“We just want to do the best we can and if we get a win that would be great. We are still just focusing on getting better and doing a good job.”
Ypres is likely Armstrong’s best chance yet of securing his second Junior WRC win of the year. His runner-up finish on Rally Estonia was yet more evidence of Armstrong’s ability to go fast anywhere.
While he’ll feel a return to sealed surface rallying will give him an edge this weekend, Armstrong will be keen not to take any unnecessary risks that could damage his Junior WRC ambitions.
Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motorsport and Junior WRC