It may not be a tourist destination up there with the Seychelles or Maldives, but if you’re into motorsport, August is a good month to go to Belgium. Just three weeks after the biggest 24-hour race of the GT season at Spa comes the Ypres Rally, and then at the end of August there’s the Belgian Grand Prix. So why not combine a trip to both?
Just 300 kilometres separates the two venues, which provide two unique experiences.
The Ypres Rally is one of the most intense asphalt rallies on the championship, consisting mainly of ultra-fast farm roads, often with deep drainage ditches on either side that can swallow a rally car whole. There are a lot of 90-degree corners, which becomes quickly covered with dirt and mud due to cars cutting them. This makes the surface extremely slippery, so anything can happen. That’s probably how Abarth driver Umberto Scandola ended up in a small lake back in 2006, when Ypres was a fixture on the European Rally Championship. Since 2001, it has been part of the world series – and it’s never looked back.
The event was won last year by local hero Thierry Neuville, driving for Hyundai.
Neuville is immersing himself in Belgium’s month of motorsport: he was at the Spa 24 Hours, he’ll be the man to beat in Ypres, and he’ll be watching the Belgian Grand Prix too.
One of the best things about the Ypres Rally is its service park. It’s unashamedly and unequivocally in the middle of the town – occupying the central square – rather than tucked away apologetically on an industrial estate, as you find on some other events. Roads are closed, there are parties in the streets, and yes, the rally gets in everyone’s way. That’s sort of the point. Whether you like it or hate it (and having grown up with the event, most of the locals love it) people can't fail to notice that the rally is happening, like a colourful travelling circus – and this is what attracts sponsors, drivers, and spectators. Proof of this is the strong entry list, with Ypres being one of the most commercially successful rallies in Europe. There’s plenty to do in Ypres as well: the town and its environs are mired in World War I history, and it’s incredible how vivid and moving the many memorials and museums are.
Ypres is also famous for its parade of cats, but above all, beer: ranging from the mildly inebriating to general anaesthetic. Curiously, the strongest beers of all are produced by Trappist monks; featuring names like ‘delirium tremens’ – which tells you all you need to know.
While Belgium is only made its WRC debut last year, a Belgian team actually already won the world championship more than 15 years ago. Sebastien Loeb’s 2006 title was clinched with Kronos Racing, running his blue Xsara privately while Citroen took a sabbatical to develop the C4 WRC. Kronos was also the team that ran Neuville on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2011, where he was one of five drivers to be challenging for the title at the final round. So there’s a strong tradition of competing at the highest level. This year, the rally won’t be visiting Spa, as it did last year, but there’s an intense 20-stage itinerary based around Ypres itself from Friday to Sunday, with shakedown on Thursday afternoon. Local drivers will be out in force – there are 46 of them in total on the entry list – including legends such as Freddy Loix and Patrick Snijers. They enjoy a huge amount of vocal home support; it’s more like a football crowd than a gathering of rally spectators.
It might be easy to overlook Belgium and its frites-munching heroes. But for this month at least, the nation of insanely strong beer is also the most important country in global motorsport. Ypres is half rally, half party. And a model for other events all around the world.