Abarth rattled on tense Ypres

Abarth rattled on tense YpresFrom Chris Biewer [ 29/06/2008 ].
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The 2008 Ypres Westhoek Rally has seen an extremely tense battle, as we could expect from the IRC series. In fact you could joke that on day1 this looked the most boring IRC round to date. You could have expected that the battle immediately developped between who are thought to be the strongest Peugeot drivers: last year’s Ypres winner and yet unbeaten in IRC Luca Rossetti, local driver and 4-times winner of Ypres Rally Freddy Loix and regular IRC podium finisher Nicolas Vouilloz. These 3 were up front from the word go. But Loix posted 5 fastest stage times in a row to start with! It also was the first IRC rally ever in which we had a stage where the top10 positions didn’t change at all.

Meanwhile for Abarth it was important to bully Peugeot. Before Ypres, after only 2 IRC rounds, Peugeot had 2 maximum scores and were leading the championship with 36points to Abarth’s 16. But from the beginning young Finnish gravel specialist Anton Alen (whose father Markku was in his days actually the best Finn on asphalt) struggled outside the top10 with this very specialised asphalt event. There are lots of rally tracks in the Vlaanderen (Flammish, northern) part of Belgium, but they all are narrow straights with tight curves, stop and go, you have to be extremely accurate with your braking points, making this the most difficult asphalt rally for a gravel specialist. But also Giandomenico Basso was surprisingly off the pace.


Well, off the pace is the wrong word for Basso. But Abarth debuted a new evolution engine with more torque to Vlaanderen and Basso was one of the fastest drivers on the few IRC events he started last year. When it was so important for Abarth to make up points to Peugeot, rather than attacking Peugeots Basso was busy chasing a Volkswagen!


It was the first time we saw the Volkswagen Polo S2000 in the IRC for 2008. And since this was the rally where Bernd Casier led last year in a Peugeot as long as he stayed on the road, great things could be expected of the Casier/Volkswagen combination. But it bears some irony in the current championship situation, that the 3 Peugeots were first followed by this Volkswagen and not by one of the many Abarths!


Actually it was even 4 Peugeots up front, but in the last stage of leg1 Jan Kopecky rolled out of 4th place. But while we lost one Peugeot, the retirement list indicated as well that this was not going to be Fiat’s rally. Seeded N°1 Corado Fontana parked his Grande Punto after stage N°1 with a gearbox problem. And seeded N°3 Volkan Isik crashed out of stage N°3. Luckily Giandomenico Basso, seeded N°6 survived stage N°6, in which he went in position N°6. 666 was a good number for the hot blooded Italians, so tense was the battle throughout the rally that on the last stage of leg1, Basso moved from 6th to 3rd in one go!


This was however helped by another sensation in the Peugeot camp. It looked increasingly that for the first time ever Luca Rossetti would not win an IRC rally, even though this was the scene of his first IRC victory. A puncture on said SS6 dropped Rossetti all the way from 3rd to 11th place!


Leg2 was just crazy with action. First stage of the day and Bernd Casier elbowed is Volkswagen past Giandomenico Basso and stayed ahead of him for the rest of the day. Incredible, once again it was not an Abarth to be the first non-Peugeot.


Further down the field more old stars in new cars gave us interesting action. Patrick Snijers is a multiple Belgian champion since the 1980s and winner of the European Championship back in 1994 in the famous Bastos Escort Cosworth. He gave up his professional career because of old age about a decade ago. Old? Well, Snijers decided to post 2nd quickest times and join into the fun Casier and Basso were having, as if Basso didn’t have worries enough. Also British icon Mark Higgins gave us a nice taste of the MG. Sadly a fuel leak had him drop to 24t place at the end of day1 and in SS13 he retired for good. But until then stage times showed the MG as high ap as 5th!


Back to the Peugeot vs Abarth action, some shorter stages and it is good bye to Daniel Sola and Renato Travaglia, both crashing out. Also Peugeot drivers Brice Tirabassi and Janos Toth fall victims of the Vlaanderen ditches.


The biggest news at that point is when in SS10 Nicolas Vouilloz spun and dropped to 4th place. The 3-way battle for 3rd (Casier, Basso, Snijers) now became a 4-way battle for 2nd. However after the long Heuvelland 1 stage Vouilloz is already firmly back in 2nd.


However to Basso’s worries of bringing the points for Abarth, Vouilloz’s recovere did not mean the 4-way battle became a little easier. Team mate Anton Alen couldn’t help Basso, just as Alen moved into the top10 a puncture had him back were he started the day, in around 15th place. Luca Rossetti kept making up time after his day1 puncture and so we still had a 4-way battle. Curiously Rossetti came in big steps into 6th place but couldn’t get get past Snijers, Basso & Casier easily.


It indeed was the most amazing split second battle for stage after stage. Basso, Snijers, Rossetti, te 3 of them were seperated by just 5.4sec after SS14. SS16 and the 3 were within 1.6sec without changing position. If you thought this was unbelievable tight for 3 cars so close to the finish: SS17, although Basso passed Snijers again the gap between these 3 melted from 1.6s to 1.0s!


And the last stage was the 42km Heuvelland again. The 3 drivers seperated by 1s with Casier in the last podium place not out of reach either. On any other rally you would have worried over Casier’s only 5.1sec lead, if the fight behind him wasn’t even more nailbiting stuff! The first split of that last stage already showed Basso meant business, as he indeed was fastest and took enough time to snap the VW driver’s 3rd place already here. The 2nd split showed even more Basso meant business: He overcooked it, a good minute was lost! Now it was Rossetti’s turn. Maybe he found the better attack speed. On split one still 2sec down on Basso, he made it trough the stage incident free and – when have you last heard that in a rally – on the very last stage alone Rossetti moved from 6th to 3rd!


The action was so gripping, it is impossible to tell you all the changes and fights in detail throughout the day. I am sure no other sport can deliver that much drama and excitement. Just take that: On the last stage Belgian old foxes Paul Lietaer (Mitsubishi Lancer gN, formerly famous in gA Ford Sapphire and Escort Cosworth, lately in an Escort Mk2 BDA) and Dominique Bruyneel (new shape Subaru Impreza gN, formerly famous in Lancia Delta integrale and Peugeot 306 Maxi) swapped places.


In fact, while at WRC rallies you ousehold, in Ypres on the very last stage positions 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 & 10 changed. 7 out of 10 top10 places changed! If it wasn’t for Loix’s strong start (well, a puncture would have done), no less than 6 drivers were still able to win the rally with one stage to go.


Further down the field, I don’t want to forget young lady driver Melissa Debackere, wo came 11th overall in a Mitsubishi Lancer gN. It was the first time she drove this type of car. Recently she showed stage winning performances in Belgian championship rallies in an ageing Toyota Corolla WRC.


The 2WD battle was maybe a bit ironic. As predicted by the author, Kris Princen delivered a perfect show in the low budget Renault Clio R3. He was clearly leading the 2WD category troughout the rally and eventually was on the edge of a top10 finish. But he retired on the last stage of the rally! Owever Renault is not registered for IRC points, nor is the Citroën C2 of eventual 2WD winner Aaron Burkhardt.


The big favourite for the IRC 2WD prize was the return of Honda, tis time with Alessandro Bettega. The son of former Lancia works driver Attilio surprised many with finishing 11th on Tour de Corse last year, which was his debut in a WRCar. Bettega was quickes than the Fiats throughout, but crashed out in SS9. This should have given maximum 2WD points to Fiat and their FWD Punto JTD diesel. But nope, it wasn’t to be Fiat’s rally. Both cars retired and ironically the IRC 2WD winner’s 10points were awarded to a 10 years old Peugeot 106 Rallye!