Bryan Bouffier holds a narrow lead after the first seven stages of the Kenotek by CID LINES Ypres Rally, round five of the FIA European Rally Championship.
Driving a Michelin-shod Citroen DS3 R5 under the Gemini Clinic Rally Team banner in his first ERC appearance of the season, Bouffier has just 6.9 seconds in hand over local legend and 10-time event winner Freddy Loix.
French driver Bouffier, looking to avenge his defeat by Loix in Belgium 12 months ago, headed the field throughout the day, choosing to run first on the road after topping Thursday evening's Qualifying Stage.
Rather than Loix, it was another Skoda Fabia R5-driving Belgian that was keeping Bouffier honest at the end of the opening loop of stages, with Vincent Verschueren just 6.4s adrift after winning SS3 Mesen 1. Loix made changes to his car in service though and promptly reclaimed second place on SS4 Langemark, cutting Bouffier's lead to 4s in the process. Bouffier responded to win the second run over Dikkebus, before he and Loix tied for the best time on Wijtschate 2 and were split by just a tenth of a second on Mesen 2.
By winning Mesen again at the end of the day, Verschueren arrived back in Ypres only 17.8s off the lead, while Kris Princen is only six seconds further back after a consistent day in his Peugeot Belgium Luxembourg-entered 208 T16, despite problems with the intercom system.
Though a pre-event engine change had forced French star Stephane Lefebvre to miss the Qualifying Stage and therefore run 24th on the road at the start of the leg, he set two fastest stage times during the day. The 2014 ERC Junior champion lost 20s to Bouffier on the very first stage when he got a warning over gearbox temperature, but fought his way back to fifth place as the day went on, ending it 31.8s behind compatriot and fellow Citroen driver Bouffier.
Bernd Casier sat third after the opening stage, and although he has slipped back to sixth in his Ford Fiesta R5, he and Dutch Fabia R5 driver Hermen Kobus remain within a minute of the lead. Jaroslav Orsak is having another good run in the Kimi Racing Ford Fiesta R5 he debuted in the Azores three weeks ago and is eighth, just ahead of fellow Czech driver Jaromir Tarabus. Claudie Tanghe is 10th ahead of fellow Belgian Fiesta R5 driver Pieter Tsjoen, the eight-time national champion falling back after he bent a wheel on SS4. Davy Vanneste is 12th and Melissa Debackere is 13th, on course for ERC Ladies' Trophy honours. Behind Antonin Tlustak and in 15th is 1994 ERC champion Patrick Snijers, who spun his 208 T16 on SS6.
Alexey Lukyanuk came to Ypres for the first time with the aim of scoring a strong haul of points towards his ERC title fight with Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who left the event out of his 2016 programme. However, the Russian was caught out by Belgium's fast, ditch-lined roads on the very first stage, running wide and hitting a bank, launching him into a 360-degree spin through the air. He was forced to retire from the first leg at the end of the stage with broken suspension and it remains to be seen whether he will restart.
Lukyanuk's H-Racing team is running a second Fiesta R5 in Belgium for local driver Cedric Cherain, but he crashed out on SS2. His compatriot Guillaume Dilley was running ninth until stopping with a mechanical problem on the penultimate test of the day, while fellow DS3 R5 promise Kevin Demaerschalk lost over three minutes to a puncture on the first stage but has posted good times since.
Leg two today [Saturday] consists of 10 stages, totalling 169.9 kilometres and split into four loops, with each stage being run twice. The day includes the longest of the event, the 23.23-kilometre Hollebeke.