Freddy Loix has gained a huge boost in his efforts to win the GEKO Ypres Rally for a seventh time after he completed the opening day of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge event with a lead of almost 40 seconds over Guy Wilks, while his key rival Thierry Neuville retired on the first special stage.
Loix, at the wheel of a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, was fastest on all of Friday's six special stages to open up an advantage of 36.7s over Wilks in a Peugeot UK 207 S2000. Six-time Belgian title winner Pieter Tsjoen is locked in a close battle with Bryan Bouffier for third with Dutch driver Hans Weijs impressing on his first appearance in the IRC in a Super 2000 car in fifth place.
Neuville was one of the favourites for victory in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 but failed to complete the first test.
“The front-right wheel broke through a left corner and he had to drive for more than one kilometre on this broken wheel while he tried to find a safe place to stop,” Kronos boss Marc van Dalen said. “When he stopped a bolt in the suspension was broken and he had to retire. It is a big disappointment for him.”
There were no such problems for leader Loix who has dominated the event from the outset alongside co-driver and fellow Belgian Frederic Miclotte. But while Loix impressed, his team-mate Jan Kopecky was forced to withdraw after his co-driver Petr Stary suffered a broken collarbone when they crashed during Thursday evening's shakedown. Stary is expected to make a rapid recovery but their failure to start will be keenly felt by Kopecky, who is second in the IRC drivers' standings and had been tipped as a possible winner.
Guy Wilks capitalised on the confidence he'd built up during a pre-event test to complete Friday's stages 18.9s clear of third-placed Tsjoen. The Briton only once failed to set a top-three stage time in his 207 and felt he could have gone fastest of all had he not lost precious seconds slowing for Andreas Mikkelsen's Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia.
The Norwegian had understeered into a ditch barely a handful of kilometres from the stage start. In his attempts to regain the road he was unable to avoid striking a submerged concrete block, which broke his front-right suspension and forced his retirement.
Bouffier was third after the first stage but lost time – and part of his Peugeot France 207's front bumper – when he went off the road and through a field on stage two. A spin on stage three caused further delay but the Rallye Monte-Carlo winner battled back to 4.8s of third-placed Tsjoen by the completion of day one.
Tsjoen, the reigning Belgian champion, is making his annual IRC appearance but his first alongside new co-driver Lara Vanneste, a late replacement for his intended navigator Eddy Chevaillier, who suffered back injuries in a crash on a rally in Greece seven days ago. He expressed his surprise to be third overnight in his Kronos Racing 207 and plans to make the most of a higher road position through Saturday's stages.