Freddy Loix is one victory away from making it ten Geko Ypres Rally wins following a dramatic climax to Belgium's FIA European Rally Championship event, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in glorious sunshine on Saturday and with thousands of fans lining the challenging route.
The nine-time winner started Saturday's final leg trailing Kevin Abbring by 24.8 seconds but moved in front when the Dutchman retired his Peugeot 208T16 with a mechanical failure on stage 13 across the border in France. And Loix, whose Skoda Fabia Super 2000 was co-driven by fellow Belgian Johan Gitsels, marked his win – the fifth for Skoda in Ypres – by confirming that he will return to the tarmac spectacular next year to bid for a tenth triumph.
“It's incredible and I think it will take a long time before someone else will do this,” said Loix. “I was really missing the battle with Kevin this afternoon because it was a pleasure to fight for tenths of a second with Kevin and the other drivers rather than just controlling the final six stages. But I'm very happy and the target is to come back to try to win for a tenth time. Then it could be time to stop and give the young boys who pushed me a lot this weekend a chance to win.”
Abbring gained some consolation by landing the prestigious Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy for his charging display and nine stage wins.
“I'm still proud of my performance on my first time here in a four-wheel-drive car and I've gained some confidence for the future,” said the Dutchman. “It's a shame we retired but I've driven without mistakes and the car has been fantastic. I really appreciated the fight with Freddy and I was still able to enjoy the rally.”
Elsewhere, it was a double first for Belgium's Cedric Cherain, who scored his maiden ERC podium and his first in Ypres in second place in a Ford Fiesta R5, with Sepp Wiegand finishing as the best Ypres rookie in third for Skoda Auto Deutschland on his first ERC start since he finished second on April's Discover Northern Ireland Circuit of Ireland Rally. Hermen Kobus finished fourth with triple European champion Luca Rossetti taking fifth after he battled back from his dramatic trip into a ditch on Friday, which was caused when he picked up a puncture striking a rock.
Davy Vanneste rounded out the top six with ERC Production Car Cup Andy Lefevere seventh ahead of Didier Duquesne. It was the second year in a row that Lefevere had taken the win and not even a puncture could stop him.
Meanwhile, the ERC Junior Championship produced a breath-taking final-stage showdown between Andrea Crugnola and Stephane Lefebvre who finished the event tied on time following almost 300 kilometres of serious competition. Lefebvre took the victory due to the fact he was fastest in class on the opening stage although it could have been a different story when the bonnet of his Peugeot 208 R2 flew open at the first corner and he drove through the closing 27.56-kilometre stage relying on co-driver Thomas Dubois' pacenotes after his vision was obscured.
In the race for the coveted ERC title, Esapekka Lappi continues to head Craig Breen in the standings despite a car-wrecking crash on stage nine. The Finn and co-driver Janne Ferm were taken to hospital for precautionary checks but were later given the all clear. Breen also retired after myriad technical issues struck his 208T16. Lappi's lead over Breen is now 33 points at the halfway point in the season, while his solitary stage win ensures he still tops the ERC Asphalt Masters.
Former Super 2000 world champion Xevi Pons retired his Fiesta R5 in a ditch on stage nine, while Pieter Tsjoen's hopes of a top 10 finish ended in a ditch on stage 16. Neil Simpson was in the top 10 when he went off the road on stage 14. Antonin Tlusak rolled into retirement on stage 11 but Melissa Debackere battled to the finish in ninth amid fears an overheating engine would force her exit. Jaroslav Orsak completed the top 10 by two-tenths of a second, while a persistent fuel system problem prevented Vincent Verschueren from giving the Citroën DS3 R5 a debut ERC finish.
(after 20 stages, 294.79 kilometres)
1. Freddy Loix (BEL)/Johan Gitsels (BEL)
ŠKODA Fabia S2000 2h43m13.7s
2. Cédric Cherain (BEL)/André Leyh (BEL)
Ford Fiesta R5 +1m09.9s
3. Sepp Wiegand (DEU)/Frank Christian (DEU)
ŠKODA Fabia S2000 +2m14.2s
4. Hermen Kobus (NLD)/Erik De Wild (NLD)
Ford Fiesta S2000 +2m32.5s
5. Luca Rossetti (ITA)/Matteo Chiarcossi (ITA)
ŠKODA Fabia S2000 +3m44.5s
6. Davy Vanneste (BEL)/Eddy Snaet (BEL)
Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m25.4s
7. Andy Lefevere (BEL)/Andy Vangheluwe (BEL)
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X R4 +6m11.5s
8. Didier Duquesne (BEL)/Filip Cuvelier (BEL)
Ford Fiesta R5 +6m53.2s
9. Melissa Debackere (BEL)/Cindy Cokelaere (BEL)
Peugeot 207 S2000 +6m59.7s
10. Jaroslav Orsák (CZE)/David Šmeidler (CZE)
ŠKODA Fabia S2000 +9m01.4s
FIA ERC Production Car Cup:
Andy Lefevere (BEL)/Andy Vangheluwe (BEL) Lancer Evo X R4
FIA ERC 2WD Championship:
Kevin Demaerschalk (BEL)Bram Eelbode (BEL) Peugeot 208 R2
ERC Junior Championship:
Stéphane Lefebvre (FRA)/Thomas Dubois (FRA) Peugeot 208 R2
ERC Asphalt Master:
Freddy Loix (BEL)
ERC Ladies Trophy:
Melissa Debackere (BEL)
Colin McRae ERC Flat Out Trophy:
Kevin Abbring (NED)