Belgium’s Thierry Neuville held a lead of 17.7 seconds in his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC after a dramatic opening leg of the 52nd Vodafone Rally of Portugal through six gruelling gravel special stages to the north of Porto on Saturday.
Leg one developed into a tortuous, adrenaline-fuelled tussle in Northern Portugal where five of the leading 13 factory drivers fell by the wayside. M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Elfyn Evans was an unlikely beneficiary of the carnage around him and the Welshman held an unofficial second position at the night halt.
Sébastien Ogier damaged a suspension arm and, as a result, slid his Ford Fiesta WRC off the road and out of fourth position in the second run through Viana do Castelo. It was an uncharacteristic and potentially crucial mistake by the Frenchman, who had arrived in Porto with a 10-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship.
Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Team suffered the loss of both Ott Tänak and Jari-Matti Latvala on the morning’s loop. The former clouted a rock, damaged the Yaris WRC’s cooling system and the engine suffered terminal damage, while Latvala succumbed to a broken suspension damper.
Andreas Mikkelsen of the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team suffered power steering issues and, despite brave attempts to repair the damage on the road section to stage seven, the Norwegian was also sidelined soon afterwards. Team-mate Hayden Paddon crashed heavily and blocked the seventh stage, which was stopped while he was transferred to hospital for precautionary medical checks.
Punctures and excessive tyre wear caused chaos on the last of the gravel stages. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Kris Meeke and Craig Breen both suffered, but the latter slipped to sixth after stopping to change a tyre. Meeke lost third place by driving the Porto street stages on a wheel rim and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo duly moved up from fourth to third.
Esapekka Lappi climbed to fourth in the sole-surviving Toyota Yaris WRC, but both Teemu Suninen and Mads Østberg had been delayed by Paddon’s crash and were awaiting a notional time from rally organisers for SS7.
A puncture and further delays wrecked Pontus Tidemand’s chance of extending his WRC 2 series lead and England’s Gus Greensmith was able to storm into the lead after six stages, the Ford Fiesta R5 driver’s challenge boosted when early leader Stephane Lefebvre lost a couple of minutes in his Citroën C3 R5.
Friday - as it happened
Ogier was handed the dubious task of opening the road in the Viana do Castelo special, but there was early drama when Tänak clouted a rock and ground to a halt with a high oil temperature after being the quickest of the first three drivers at the opening split after 4.67km. A flat-out Ogier set the target time of 15min 41.5sec and was able to beat Neuville by 0.6 seconds.
But road cleaning helped cars running behind and Paddon bounced back from missing three WRC rallies to set the fastest time and move into an outright lead of 1.5 seconds from Evans. Meeke, Sordo and Suninen rounded off the top five, but Latvala and Lappi were off the pace somewhat in the two surviving Toyotas.
Tidemand sustained a flat rear-right tyre after 15km and ceded 1min 19sec seconds to Greensmith in the WRC 2 category. Lefebvre beat the Englishman to the fastest time as Pierre-Louis Loubet impressed with the third quickest time and Jusso Nordgren also lost over a minute.
The 18.11km of the Caminha stage followed. Ogier managed to beat Neuville by a tenth of a second but Meeke was even quicker, claimed the fastest time and moved 1.6 seconds ahead of Paddon in the overall standings. There was more misery for Toyota when Latvala ground to a halt with potential front-right suspension damage to his Yaris WRC. Two of the team’s cars were already out of the day’s action.
Several drivers, including Paddon and Sordo, had conserved their tyres for the longer Ponte de Lima special of 27.54km. Ogier acted as the road sweeper and posted the target of 19min 17.3ec. It was enough to edge another three-tenths of a second ahead of Neuville.
Lappi complained about a lack of grip, Meeke lost his usual rhythm and that paved the way for Sordo to win the stage and snatch the outright lead heading back to Matosinhos for the regroup and midday service. Lefebvre led Greensmith by 27.5 seconds in WRC 2.
The stage surfaces had deteriorated during the course of the entire field passing over them, but they were repeated in hotter conditions in the afternoon. The third stage, in particular, was deeply rutted and several drivers feared bedrock and large loose rocks would be prevalent.
Dramatically, Ogier clipped something and the Ford Fiesta WRC understeered off the road and into the trees 17km into the stage. His demise should have played into Neuville’s hands but the Belgian was not able to match stage winner Meeke, who regained an outright lead of 1.9 seconds from Sordo. Paddon was 1.1 seconds behind in third.
Citroën opted for a hard tyre choice on the rocky, deteriorating surface and Østberg completed a 1-2 finish on the special. Suninen also used hard tyres, finished third and prevented Breen from completing a 1-2-3 for the French team.
Crews were fearful that the subsequent two specials would have deteriorated still further. Road sweeping duties now fell to Neuville and the Belgian clocked the target time of 10min 35.5sec in Caminha 2. Mikkelsen lost over a minute with reported power steering issues and excessive tyre wear forced Sordo to slow down to conserve his rubber for the longer stage.
Meeke finished the stage with a delaminated rear tyre and lost the overall lead to Paddon, as Lappi completed the special with a broken damper, Østberg complained that he could smell smoke from the C3 WRC and Sordo settled into second place. Neuville actually tied for the stage win with Breen and moved up to fourth overall behind the Irishman after another dramatic few minutes in this topsy-turvy Rally of Portugal.
The condition of the stage surface would be critical in the re-run of Ponte de Lima. Mikkelsen stopped on the road section to the stage to carry out emergency repairs and missed his allotted start time, as Neuville laid down the gauntlet with a time of 19min 24.7sec on the last element of tread left on his failing tyres.
The Belgian’s charge was rewarded with the fastest time, as Sordo rued his tyre choice and dropped 29.7 seconds to his team-mate and Meeke finished the stage with damage to the front left wheel arch and the loss of 10 seconds to Neuville. Mikkelsen continued to haemorrhage time with an ongoing problem and pulled over the let Evans through before stopping on the special.
Paddon left the road and the stage was stopped while the medical crew entered the special to transfer the Kiwi to hospital for precautionary checks. All the drama enabled Neuville to gain an outright lead of 7.3 seconds over Evans, but Breen dropped two minutes changing a puncture and slipped to sixth place. Drivers following behind were all awarded notional stage times.
The two runs through the cobbled Porto street stage were delayed slightly as a result and the results would be unofficial because neither Østberg nor Suninen had finished SS7 because of the stoppage.
Meeke was forced to complete the two specials with no rear left tyre, but Neuville benefited from his soft tyre choice to extend his overall lead over Evans and Sordo, as the tail-enders arrived late into Porto after the blockage in stage seven.
Tomorrow (Saturday), crews will tackle two passes through the Vieira do Minho, Cabeceiras de Baste and Amarante specials with a return to Exponor for a regroup and service at lunchtime.
Nearly half of the day’s competitive action will be fought out in the 37.60km of Amarante - the longest stage of the rally – as the itinerary moves to the east of Porto for day three in the Cabreira mountains.