Belgium’s Thierry Neuville delivered a professional performance to secure his first victory in the Vodafone Rally of Portugal and storm into a 19-point lead in the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship.
The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team driver began the day with a lead of 39.8 seconds and conserved his tyres masterfully to reach the finish with a winning margin of 40 seconds.
He and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul had taken the lead on the seventh stage on Friday and, despite winning only five of the 20 special stages, Neuville was able to confirm an eighth WRC win since his maiden triumph with the Korean manufacturer in Germany in 2014.
Neuville said: “We had a clever approach all weekend and the team was behind me pushing me all the way. I think I can be proud of what we achieved. I think it was important to be consistent to the end.”
Following an early accident for five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier, the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team had its back against the wall, but Welshman Elfyn Evans and young Finn Teemu Suninen came good when it mattered to round off the podium places with two hard-earned finishes in their Ford Fiesta WRCs.
Second place was Evans’s best result since his Wales Rally GB win in 2017 and third marked a first ever podium finish for a delighted Suninen. The team also closed the gap on their rivals in the prestigious Manufacturers’ Championship.
“It was well overdue,” said Evans. “We have not had a great start to the year. Hopefully this is a sign of more positive things to come.”
The Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Team lost Ott Tänak early in the rally and Jari-Matti Latvala was also out of overall contention in Rally 2, but Esapekka Lappi came to the fore when he was really needed and tried in vain to catch Suninen for third place. The Finn’s consolation was a polished fourth position and a Power Stage win, his pace and a 10-second penalty ensuring that Hyundai’s Dani Sordo had to settle for fifth overall.
The Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s Mads Østberg and Craig Breen spent two days acting as road sweepers at the front of the field. The reward for their patience and persistence was sixth and seventh overall and priceless Manufacturers’ points for the French team. Kris Meeke had crashed heavily out of the rally on Saturday.
A time-consuming puncture appeared to have ruined Pontus Tidemand’s chances of winning the WRC 2 category on Friday morning. But the Swede was not to be denied and he fought back valiantly over the next two days to extend his championship lead with an impressive 2min 06.5sec win in a Škoda Fabia R5 – his third of the season so far.
Poland’s Lukasz Pienazek finished second in a similar car and Frenchman Stéphane Lefebvre rounded off the podium places in Citroën’s new C3 R5 after a puncture and further delays wrecked his chances of claiming the win on Saturday afternoon. Frenchman Pierre-Louis Loubet, the son of former Lancia and Alfa Romeo works driver Yves Loubet, was fourth.
Sunday - as it happened
Breen and Østberg were again given road-sweeping duties for the remaining five stages in the two surviving Citroëns, as Neuville tried to defend an outright lead of 39.8 seconds and Evans, Sordo, Suninen and Lappi scrapped for the remaining places inside the top five.
Sordo’s cause was not helped by a 10-second penalty imposed late on Saturday night by rally officials that demoted him to fourth behind Suninen. He had displaced a marker bale on the Porto street stage on Friday evening.
Tidemand was on track to crush his rivals in WRC 2. After losing time on Friday, the Swede found a troublefree and fast pace and headed into the final morning 1min 19.4sec in front of Pienazek.
Rädstrom held a comfortable WRC 3 lead of 4min 03.07sec over Devine after fellow Swede Emil Bergvist had rolled his Ford Fiesta R2 out of the running for the win on Saturday.
The first of two runs through the 8.64km of Montim was first on the agenda. Breen swept the surface in the C3 and carded the target time of 5min 58.0sec, duly pipping his team-mate by three-tenths of a second.
Lappi closed to within 10.5 seconds of Suninen with a first fastest time of 5min 47.4sec and also moved in front of Sordo into fourth. A cautious Neuville ceded eight-tenths of a second to Evans but maintained a 39-second overall advantage. England’s Tom Williams rolled his WRC 3 Ford Fiesta R2 and managed to continue.
The first run through the legendary Fafe stage followed and a frustrated Breen opened his account with a run of 6min 54.6sec – a time that was soon eclipsed by Østberg.
A flying Lappi shaved 10.6 seconds off Breen’s opener, but he was only able to nibble three-tenths of a second out of Suninen and actually dropped back behind an impressive Sordo and into fifth place. Neuville and Evans safely negotiated the special to maintain the top two positions. Ogier confirmed his second stage win of the weekend but Estonia’s Ken Torn rolled out of the WRC 3 battle.
Lappi shaved another 1.2 seconds off Suninen’s advantage in Luilhas and headed to the re-run of Montim just nine seconds behind his fellow Finn. Lappi’s time also meant that he moved 3.3 seconds ahead of Sordo again and reclaimed fourth place.
Suninen’s stage time reduced Evans’s hold on second position to 11.8 seconds and Neuville extended his outright lead to 41.2 seconds. Latvala secured his third fastest time of the weekend by carding 8min 09.2sec, but Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi was sidelined with mechanical issues.
A first fastest time for Suninen meant that he closed in on a first ever WRC podium finish by increasing his advantage over Lappi to 10.7 seconds. He also moved to within 8.4 seconds of Evans. Sordo finished the stage with a cracked windscreen and lost another eight-tenths of a second to Lappi and remained in fifth place, 4.1 behind the Finn heading to the regroup before the Power Stage. Neuville had the cushion of a 37.5-second lead to take to the final timed test.
The gloves were off in the battle for the extra championship points in Fafe 2. Thousands of spectators gathered around the infamous jump as rally officials switched the running order to enable the top three WRC 2 crews to complete the stage before the World Rally Cars.
Latvala was the first of the WRC drivers into the Power Stage and the Finn posted the target of 6min 41.1sec. The Finn was still cleaning the surface in places and that was slower that the time Ogier had set in the morning’s first run (6min 40.7sec). The Frenchman stormed into the lead with his own 6min 38.4sec blast.
Mikkelsen ran even faster with a 6min 37.8sec run to take the provisional Power Stage lead. Neither Breen nor Østberg (6min 38.1sec) could make in-roads into the Norwegian’s time, but Sordo was in terrific form and went fastest with a time of 6min 35.3sec. But it was not enough and a sensational Lappi carded a 6min 33.2sec flyer to take the stage lead and confirm fourth place.
Suninen was not able to match his fellow Finn, but he confirmed third overall and a first podium with a time of 6min 36.5sec. Evans had to be careful not to risk second place by taking undue risks and he delivered an impressive run of 6min 37.6sec that enabled him to stay in front of Suninen.
Neuville threw caution to the wind to extend his championship lead over Ogier and a time of 6min 35.1sec enabled the Belgian to claim four extra points for second place behind Lappi.