Local hero Freddy Loix clinched his sixth Geko Ypres Rally victory to become the fifth different winner of an Intercontinental Rally Challenge round this season.
Driving for Skoda Motorsport for the first time, the Belgian was roared on by tens of thousands of adoring fans who lined the demanding all-asphalt route throughout Saturday's 13 sun-coated special stages.
Co-driven by fellow Belgian Frederic Miclotte, Loix started day two with a slender 5.8secs lead over Peugeot UK's Kris Meeke, last year's Ypres winner and the defending IRC champion, but what was shaping up to be a repeat of the pair's epic battle in Belgium twelve months ago ended when Meeke suffered a spectacular high-speed roll on Saturday's second stage.
With runaway IRC title leader Juho Hanninen crashing into retirement on Friday evening, the Briton was desperate to make the most of the opportunity by taking his second win of 2010, but it all went awry when he lost control on the exit of a fast right-hander two kilometres into the stage, clipped a bank and rolled. Fortunately, both Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle were uninjured, but the crash marked their fourth retirement of the season.
"It was a mistake with the pacenote," said Meeke, who began day two of the rally by claiming his third fastest stage time, "We turned in a little too early and ran out of room on the exit of the corner. When you're pushing like we were, that kind of thing can happen."
Although Meeke's crash took the pressure off Loix, the 39-year old rued his rival's retirement as it meant he had to adopt a less attacking style while also maintaining his concentration by driving at a similar pace for the remainder of the leg, which covered more than 190 competitive kilometres. Apart from a minor brake glitch, little troubled the driver affectionately known as 'Fast Freddy', whose win was Skoda's fourth in the IRC in 2010 and its first with the facelifted Fabia.
"I'm very happy, very happy," Loix admitted, "It was a nice comeback for me to the IRC. I really have to thank my sponsor BFO and Skoda Motorsport, who gave me the possibility to prepare myself properly and provided me with a car to win. It was difficult when Kris retired, because it was hard to know how much to attack, so I am very happy."
Meeke's departure also handed second place to Jan Kopecky, who has closed to within three points of team-mate Hanninen at the top of the title standings with six rounds remaining. Kopecky got to within 25 seconds of Loix with a succession of fastest stage times on Saturday afternoon, but a mistake on stage 15, when he went wide into a field, ended any outside hopes he might have had of snatching an unlikely victory.
Indeed, Kopecky admitted to a lack of confidence with the handling of his Fabia Super 2000, but was able to dial-out the contributing understeer by making a handful of set-up changes.