Freddy Loix is on course to make it a record-extending eighth victory on the Geko Ypres Rally following a dominant performance on round six of the FIA European Rally Championship in Belgium on Friday.
Back in action in a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 for the first time in more than a year, Loix was fastest through leg one's opening five stages, which took place in increasingly treacherous conditions. Despite being outpaced by Hayden Paddon on the day's final run, Loix's lead at the overnight halt in Ypres stands at 1m36.2s. Bryan Bouffier, in a Peugeot 207 S2000, is second with Paddon third at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta S2000.
“It's going very well,” said the Belgian legend, who earned the right to select his starting position first after winning Thursday's evening Qualifying Stage. “We could go quickly from the first stage because I had a good feeling with the car and we saw no reason why we should not push. Tomorrow is still a long day and now we have to control the race, which won't be easy if the conditions are as difficult as they have been today.”
While Bouffier reported a trouble-free day alongside new co-driver Lara Vanneste, Paddon struggled for grip and confidence – losing 20s on the first corner of the first stage when he skated into a potato field – before fighting back in the afternoon.
Craig Breen was firmly in contention for top honours only for his impressive challenge to unravel during the evening loop of three stages. He lost approximately five seconds with a puncture on stage four before a broken front-left driveshaft on the road section heading to the next run left his Peugeot Rally Academy 207 Super 2000 on rear-wheel drive only. As a result he has slipped to fourth overall and 2m22.2s adrift of Loix.
Andreas Aigner, in a Stohl Racing Subaru Impreza R4, is on top in the ERC Production Car Cup in a hugely impressive fifth overall with Xavier Bagunet leading the ERC 2WD Championship in a Peugeot 208 R2. Melissa Debackere is the top ERC Ladies' Trophy contender in 10th, one place behind Polish driver Michal Solowow, who lost more than two minutes when he slid into a ditch after his Fiesta's windscreen misting up and he couldn't see where he was going.
Elsewhere, the thousands of fans watching the stage action have witnessed the future of rallying right here, right now with Kris Meeke and Thierry Neuville driving through the stages in their respective R5 challengers, the Peugeot 208 T16 and the Ford Fiesta R5. The new-generation machines are being used as course cars and have created a huge amount of interest.
Meanwhile, Antonin Tlusak heads the GPD Mit Metal Racing Team's challenge after team-mate Jaroslav Orsak went off into a ditch on stage two where he got stuck. Tlusak is 12th overall, one place behind Hungarian Andras Hadik, who has impressed on his ERC debut.
Germain Bonnefis is the top Team Renault Sport Technologies runner after Robert Consani retired due to damage sustained to his Megane RS when he rolled on the first stage. Marco Tempestini is on course for ERC Production Car Cup points for the Napoca Rally Academy, while Zoltan Bessenyey is in the top 10 in the ERC 2WD Championship for Eurosol-Honda Civic Type R.
Leading Belgian drivers Pieter Tsjoen and Bernd Casier, who had been scheduled to share driving and co-driving duties because of budgetary constraints, were unable to start after their Fabia S2000 suffered engine failure Thursday's Free Practice.
Saturday's itinerary features 14 stages over a competitive distance of 196.07 kilometres. The first stage, Vleteren-Krombeke, gets underway at 10:38hrs [local time] with the finish scheduled for 22:20hrs [local time] in Ypres' Grote Markt.