The Intercontinental Rally Challenge resumes on the Geko Ypres Rally in Belgium from 21-23 June with Gareth Roberts, co-driver to Craig Breen, in the thoughts of the IRC community following his sad passing on Targa Florio-Rally Internazionale Di Sicilia yesterday, Saturday.
 
Despite being one of the many success stories of the IRC, Ypres Rally organisers haven’t held back from revamping up to 60 per cent of the asphalt showcase’s demanding route in northwest Belgium.
 
An IRC highlight since the series began in 2007, the rally features a competitive distance of almost 300 kilometres over 18 special stages. With the action contained in a fast and furious 30-hour window mainly on testing farmland roads, the task facing competitors is enormous.
 
The fight for glory begins late in the afternoon on Friday 22 June with the first of six stages, two of which will be repeated. The itinerary includes the new technically demanding Westouter plus the double-use Mesen-Sauvegarde and Dikkebus tests.
 
Following service and the overnight halt in Ypres, Saturday’s competition starts with the 26.75-kilometre Heuvelland test shortly before 11:00hrs local time. The stage, the first of 12 on day two, uses an all-new route for 2012 and is set to provide a tough early challenge.
 
In other changes, the Proven-Vleteren stage has been rerouted and renamed Vleteren-Krombeke, while Kemmelberg has also been completely redesigned. Among the other highlights are two stages across the border in France, including the Wasquehal street run.
 
But Ypres – or Ieper to Flemish speakers – is more than just a rally. The town, which was painstakingly rebuilt after it suffered heavy damage and loss of life during World War I, becomes the event’s epicentre for the duration of the event with the central service park, the Ieper Rally Center, dominating the famous Grote Markt and filling the surrounding streets. With tens of thousands of spectators flocking to the town to watch the numerous service halts and start and finish ceremonies, the atmosphere is electric, particularly when darkness falls.
 
All drivers competing in Ypres will be in contention for the prestigious Colin McRae IRC Flat Out Trophy, which is awarded to the driver whose performance best embodies the spirit of the rally legend.
 
KEY FEATURES
Appearances can be deceptive in Ypres. While the stages, comprising mainly long, narrow and flat straights and 90-degree junctions through areas of open farmland, appear tame, the competitive route is littered with hazards waiting to catch out the unwary driver.
 
Drainage ditches and telegraph pylons pepper the roads, which can become notoriously slippery due to mud and gravel being dragged onto the surface by drivers taking ‘cuts’ through corners. With changeable weather conditions and stages run at night adding to the challenge, not to mention a condensed timetable, the Ypres Rally tests all participants to the limit.
 
The proliferation of long straights and tight corners put the onus firmly on driver commitment and accurate pacenotes. With top speeds of up to 180kph being recorded, drivers have to judge their braking points to perfection to maximise the amount of speed they carry into and out of corners, meaning it’s not just the competitor with the most powerful engine and strongest brakes that wins.
 
While drivers such as Luca Rossetti and Kris Meeke won on their Ypres Rally debuts in 2007 and 2009 respectively, local knowledge is considered essential, particularly knowing where to cut the tight corners and when to play safe by taking a more conventional line to avoid punctures. Belgian hero Freddy Loix is testament to that theory with a record seven victories.
 
FIVE FACTS
*Freddy Loix has won the Ypres Rally more times than any other driver with seven triumphs to his name, including three since the advent of the IRC in 2007
*There’s a political twist to this year’s event with Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne co-driving Tuur Vandenabeele
*Don’t be confused by signs to Ieper: it’s how Flemish-speaking Belgians spell Ypres
*The service park in the centre of Ypres is a must for rally fans. And with Ypres being in Belgium there’s a ready supply of vendors serving one of the country’s most popular dishes, frites mayonnaise
*With two stages in France on day two, the Ypres Rally is one of two rounds of the IRC with stages in two different countries. July’s Rally San Marino includes stages in the republic and in neighbouring Italy
 
THE BATTLE FOR VICTORY
While established Intercontinental Rally Challenge regulars Juho Hänninen and Andreas Mikkelsen will be in the mix for victory on the Geko Ypres Rally, the return of IRC legend Freddy Loix provides added intrigue.
 
Not only has the Belgian veteran won seven rounds of the IRC in the past, he is also a seven-time winner in Ypres, an event record. Co-driven by Lara Vanneste and back in a Peugeot 207 Super 2000 following two seasons spent competing in a ŠKODA Fabia S2000, Loix is set to fight for top spot on the narrow farmland stages he knows so well.
 
Hänninen, meanwhile, starts his first IRC counter since winning the Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally in April for ŠKODA Motorsport. However, the Finn’s focus will be on extending his lead in the European championship, which runs in tandem with the IRC. Defending champion Mikkelsen (ŠKODA UK Motorsport) will be out for revenge after crashing in Ypres last season.
 
Former IRC Production Cup frontrunner Florian Gonon joins rising star Mathieu Arzeno in the Saintéloc Racing Peugeot team, his first appearance in the IRC in an S2000 car. European championship regular Michał Sołowow will also rely on Peugeot power for his first start in this year’s IRC.
 
Other names expected to fight at the front include Ypres regular Pieter Tsjoen and Sweden’s Patrik Flodin, who begins his IRC campaign in a Petter Solberg Engineering M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 after a broken collarbone ruled him out in Corsica last month. Dream Team Ukraine duo Oleksandr Saliuk and Oleksiy Tamrazov will also compete in Fiestas.
 
ŠKODA Auto Deutschland’s impressive youngster Sepp Wiegand will continue to build his experience of IRC competition in Ypres, while Skydive Dubai’s Rashid Al-Ketbi and Eurosol Racing’s Janós Puskádi will be hoping to gain more knowledge of their Fabias. Robert Barrable, who enjoys support from ŠKODA Ireland, shone on his Ypres debut last season and will be hoping to impress once again.
 
IRC Production Cup
Andreas Aigner will be bidding to make it two wins out of two in the IRC Production Cup in the Stohl Racing Subaru Impreza R4 he shares with fellow Austrian Daniela Ertl. However, with Dutchman Jasper van den Heuvel set to offer a formidable challenge in his Ralliart Lancer R4, Aigner will face a difficult test. Belgium’s Kris Princen will also be a contender in his Renault Mégane RS, as will his younger countryman Matthias Boon in an Impreza. Dominique Bruyneel, Cédric De Cecco and Bob Colsoul have all been tipped for success while Renault privateer Robert Consani, the IRC Production Cup leader, Martinique driver Johan Heloïse and Ukrainian Vitaliy Pushkar will also chase honours.
 
IRC 2WD Cup
Kris Princen is also eligible for the IRC 2WD Cup in his front-wheel-drive Renault and the local hero will be one of the favourites for glory. Martin Kangur will head the Honda charge in his Civic Type R, while Germany’s Christian Riedemann, French rising talent Quentin Gilbert and Briton Harry Hunt will fight hard in their Citroën DS3 R3Ts. Luxembourg’s Hugo Arellano, who has Chilean ancestry, is one of several leading M-Sport Ford Fiesta R2 drivers in action, while Caren Burton, Cédric Cherain and Kevin Demaerschalk are among a number of rapid Belgian drivers chasing class success. Mark Donnelly will be one to watch in his Renault Clio R3, as will leading female drivers Molly Taylor from Australia and Ekaterina Stratieva from Bulgaria.

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