When one driver dominates a national championship for many years, their retirement can lead to the sport entering something of a slump for a few years.
That could well have been a concern to fans of rallying in Belgium, after the retirement of legendary driver Freddy Loix in 2016. Loix won four successive Belgian Championship titles between 2013 and 2016, three of those coming in a ŠKODA FABIA S2000 or FABIA R5.
He also won the Ypres Rally a phenomenal eleven times, and drove 93 WRC rallies as a works driver for Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Peugeot.
There was a real risk that his retirement would leave a void in Belgian rallying, a concern that was more intense given the margins by which he won his 4 consecutive Belgian titles.
In Loix’s final year of competitive rallying, the two drivers just behind him in the standings were Kris Princen and Vincent Verschueren. They held a sole Belgian title between them, with Princen having claimed top spot in the 1999 championship, but both had aspirations of stepping into Loix’s sizable shoes.
This season, their rivalry resumed and it was every bit as competitive and compelling as before. The scene was set in the very first round, the Rally van Haspengouw, where reigning champion Vincent Verschueren, driving for the Autostal Duindistel team alongside co-driver Veronique Hostens, put in the stronger performance, winning ten of the twelve stages. A 30-second penalty for a missed corner on stage 3, however, would ultimately cost him his prize, as Kris Prince and co-driver Bram Eelbode had done enough to take the win by just 1.2 seconds.
Unusually, neither driver topped the podium in the next round, the Spa Rally, although that was partly because Verschueren didn’t take part at all. Kris Princen was there, and was beaten by the narrowest of margins this time as another FABIA R5 driver, Adrian Fernémont of the Ecurie New Racing team, claimed the win by a margin of just 5.2 seconds.
Normal service was resumed at the TAC Rally in the next round, with Princen and Verschueren again battling it out at the front of the field. It was Princen who had the edge once again, winning all but the final two stages to claim victory by 38.3 seconds from Verschueren. Seven FABIA R5s finished in the top 9.
It was Princen’s turn to sit out proceedings in round 4 at the Rallye de Wallonie, and Verschueren took full advantage. Still, he didn’t have things all his own way. While he led for the bulk of the rally, he finished only 8.7 seconds ahead of another FABIA R5 driver, Cédric Cherain, with Fernémont on the podium once more in third.
Next up was the Sezoensrally, where it was Kris Princen’s turn to endure time penalty woes. A 3 minute time penalty on stage 10 dropped him from first to sixth in the standings, and while he managed to stage a recovery of sorts, he could only clamber back up to 3rdplace in the remaining five stages. Verschueren ensured he capitalized fully on his rival’s misfortune, clinching a dominant win by 2 minutes and 8 seconds, with yet another FABIA R5 driver, Sébastien Bedoret, finishing as runner-up.
With two wins apiece from the opening five rounds, the scene was set for a big showdown at the most prestigious event in the Belgian rallying calendar, the Ypres Rally. This year saw the normal order being upset – to the surprise of almost no-one. WRC works driver Thierry Neuville made a return to the biggest rally in his homeland and took the win in his Hyundai i20R5.
There were no fewer than six FABIA R5s right behind him, with Verschueren securing second-place by 8.7 seconds from Princen in third. Despite the close times, Verschueren held onto second-place for much of the rally. With only three rounds of the season remaining, he looked to be the on-form driver. After Ypres, few would have bet against him retaining his title.
But Kris Princen had other ideas and managed to find his best form when it mattered, starting at the Omloop van Vlaanderen in the next round. Princen won twelve of the seventeen stages driven and led from start to finish. It was only when he took his foot off the gas a little on the final two stages that Verschueren closed the gap to 18.2 seconds. Once again FABIA R5s occupied each of the top 4 positions.
If Verschueren was disappointed with that performance, things got even worse for him at the penultimate round of the season, the East Belgian Rally. A couple of poor stages would prove costly for him here, not least the final stage which he could only manage to finish in 8thposition; a result which saw him pushed off the podium for the first time that season. Princen meanwhile was merciless, taking victory by 7.9 seconds from Fernémont.
So Belgian rally fans were given the spectacle of another final round showdown, as once again Princen and Verschueren would decide who would be champion at the Rallye du Condroz-Huy. In 2017, Princen had managed to win here, but Verschueren’s third place had been enough to give him the title.
This year it was a very different story, in a rally marred by a fatal accident on stage six, in which co-driver Rik Vanlessen lost his life. Princen went into the Condroz-Huy at the top of the leaderboard, but after that incident decided that he was unable to continue and retired on stage 8. Verschueren continued, but was only able to finish in 4th place overall, and 3rd in the Belgian standings, 32.7 seconds behind the eventual winner, French WRC works driver Stéphane Lefebvre.
That result meant that Princen would end up just 4 points clear of Verschueren and claim the Belgian Rally title for 2018.
Needless to say, the tragic events at the Rallye du Condroz-Huy overshadowed what should have been a gripping end to a sensational season. Both Kris Princen and Vincent Verschueren have proved that not only does Belgian rallying have a bright future, even without Freddy Loix, but it could actually improve. The sad loss of Rik Vanlessen will be what people remember the 2018 season for, but the 2019 Belgian Rally Championship is already shaping up to be another classic.
Photos ©Joffrey Vincent 2018