Freddy Loix is on course for his sixth Geko Ypres Rally victory after completing Friday's opening leg with a lead of 5.8secs over last year's winner Kris Meeke.
But there will be no chance of a sixth consecutive podium finish for Intercontinental Rally Challenge leader Juho Hanninen, after the works Skoda Motorsport driver slid into a ditch on the day's fourth stage and got stuck, retiring from the event in the process.
Hanninen's exit has turned the race for the IRC title on its head, with Peugeot UK's Meeke and works Skoda team-mate Jan Kopecky poised to capitalise in second and third places respectively. However, neither driver has been able to check Loix's impressive progress on his first appearance in the IRC this season.
Loix, cheered on by thousands of enthusiastic spectators, won four of the opening day's six sun-baked stages on his first outing with the factory Skoda squad, which is running its 'facelift' Fabia for the first time in Belgium. According to the 39-year old, the car's wider track has enhanced its stability in fast corners, which he said has given him a "perfect feeling" on the technically demanding asphalt stages.
"It's a little bit of a surprise for me to be straight away fighting at the front, but I have a very good feeling with my car from the pre-event test and I know these stages well," Loix confirmed, "It's much too early to think about winning, but I have to say we are on the limit."
Meeke was full of praise for Loix at the end of Friday's leg, conceding that he couldn't have gone any faster in his Kronos Racing-run 207. Co-driver Paul Nagle suggested running number one on the road had proved a slight disadvantage for the British crew, particularly on the third Mesen-Sauvegarde stage when they ran first over a short gravel section and lost the lead to Loix, who was running nine places further back. Meeke also reported struggling to get on the throttle exiting junctions on the second pass due to the amount of gravel that had been pulled onto the road.
"Freddy took quite a bit of time out of me and I couldn't do any more," he admitted, "If he keeps at that pace, it's going to be difficult to catch him, but it's never over until it's over. I had nigh-on a perfect stage [on stage six] and couldn't find another tenth, so we'll take what we have."
Kopecky, meanwhile, suggested he could have been closer to the pace had he not opted for a soft compound tyre for the second loop of stages. With ambient temperatures still high heading into the evening's stages, the rubber gradually lost optimum performance and proved a minor hindrance for the Czech ace.
"It has been a tricky rally and it is a shame for Juho," he said, referring to his fallen team-mate, "We will try to come back for sure but, so far, it has not been easy. We had a big moment on the first stage when I went a bit off the road and I was quite cautious after that."