Neuville commanded his home stage of the World Rally Championship, building a 17.2-second lead over team-mate Ott Tanak heading into the penultimate stage of the day.
However, the Belgian’s hopes of a second consecutive victory at the Ypres Rally were dashed when he was caught by a hard left-hander in the 15th leg.
Neuville slid wide before entering a deep ditch, leaving his i20 N stranded with damaged steering. Onlookers were able to push the car back onto the road and Neuville continued for a short time before stopping in the driveway.
“It was actually a very simple slow left corner and there was no indication that it might be dirty,” Neuville said.
“Also, when the gravel team went through it, it seemed pretty clean.
“But unfortunately when we arrived there was a lot of dust in the corner and it was clearly visible in the photos. I just understeered into a ditch.
“The conditions are not what we expected as the corners were clean on the first pass. I guess a few cars in front of us went into the cut really hard and kicked up a lot of dust and we were caught off guard.
“I felt the impact when we went into the ditch like a strange noise so I suspected something was wrong and unfortunately the steering was damaged so we couldn’t continue.”
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydege, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1
Photo: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport
Admitting that “there was nothing he could have done at the moment” to avoid the crash, Neuville, in hindsight, believes that spinning the car before sliding into the ditch could have saved his rally.
“We did well and the approach was good,” he added.
“It was a big surprise for me and there was nothing I could do. I should have been spinning maybe [the] car, but you always try to keep going and not waste time.
“But unfortunately, it would have been better to spin the car and lose just a couple of seconds than go into a ditch.”
Neuville’s early exit from the draw handed the lead to teammate Tanaka, who finished the day with an 8.2s advantage over Toyota’s Elphin Evans heading into the last four stages on Sunday.
Tanak said he was surprised to end Saturday in the lead after losing time due to a transmission problem during Saturday’s morning loop.
“It was good to get the car right again and obviously because our pre-competition test wasn’t very good we had to go with a different differential as a spare so the settings weren’t quite what we prefer,” Tanak said.
“Eventually I managed to get used to it with a few stages and now in the last few stages I felt good in the car. It worked and it should be fine.”