Elfyn Evans mastered a brutal opening leg of the FIA World Rally Championship’s Rally Portugal to lead his Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Kalle Rovanpera on Friday night.
A furious fight in the morning became a matter of survival in the afternoon as heat, dust and punishing rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll on the first gravel rally of the 2022 season, including early exits for two WRC greats, Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier.
Evans won four of the day’s eight special stages in his GR Yaris Rally1 to head Rovanpera, who earned two fastest times, by 13.6s after 75.6 competitive miles.
The Welshman’s low start position meant he enjoyed the benefit of better grip on roads swept clean by the early starters. In contrast, championship leader Rovanpera endured the worst conditions from first in the running order.
Evans demoted Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, who led after Thursday night’s short superspecial stage in the streets of Coimbra, with an opening stage victory. He won the next one, too, but was powerless to halt a charging Loeb, who snatched a 0.5s advantage on the day’s third stage.
But when the nine-time WRC champ slammed his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 into retirement against a wall just 25 yards into the next stage, Evans was back ahead and avoided multiple hazards on the deteriorating roads.
“They were quite extreme conditions,” said a pleased and relieved Evans at the end of the leg. “Everybody was trying to pick a way through and to a point it was a lottery but, of course, you have to try to drive as quick as you can as well. You can always say you could have gone faster, but would you still be here or not?”
Second at day’s end was beyond Rovanpera’s hopes. “Yeah, that was better than we hoped for,” said the 21-year-old Finn. “We were scooping a lot of dust into the car. Sometimes I couldn’t really breathe or see anything.”
Season debutant Dani Sordo holds third in his Hyundai i20 N Rally1, half a minute behind the second of the Toyotas. The Spaniard has a slim 5.2s lead over Takamoto Katsuta in another GR Yaris, the Japanese driver ruing losing that amount of time with a half spin.
The other Sebastien — eight-time and reigning WRC champ Ogier — had been on course to make it a great day for Toyota as he took his GR Yaris into the third spot, but a second afternoon puncture stranded the Frenchman roadside after he’d elected to carry only one spare wheel.
M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith twice had a tire come off the rim on his Puma. His progress was further stifled when dust filled the cockpit, but the Brit persevered to hold fifth, a minute off the lead.
Greensmith’s teammate, Pierre-Louis Loubet, was sixth, the French driver’s hopes of a top-three overnight slot ending when he overshot a junction on the penultimate stage.
Seventh at the end of the leg was poor reward for Neuville, who was Evans’ closest challenger until wheel damage on a liaison section forced him to drive the final two tests with a broken driveshaft on his Hyundai i20 N Rally1.
Craig Breen was delayed by various problems in his Puma, including a puncture and a brush with a bank. The Irishman was eighth, with M-Sport Ford teammate Adrien Fourmaux ninth and a frustrated Ott Tanak completing the top 10 after two punctures in his factory Hyundai.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champ Andreas Mikkelsen ended the final stage with a 37s lead over Teemu Suninen’s Hyundai i20 N, but was forced to retire his Toksport Skoda Fabia Evo with a terminal engine problem on the way to the final service.
“We tried what we could, but the team said it’s better to retire the car here because there’s no way they would gave time to fix it in normal service,” said a disappointed Mikkelsen. “It’s a shame because we were driving sensibly and we had built up a big gap.”
Suninen inherits the WRC2 lead, with a 17.1s gap over Yohan Rossel (Citroen C3). Oliver Solberg (Hyundai), Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Skoda) and Miko Marczyk (Skoda) complete the top five.
If Friday’s first leg was tough, Saturday is set to be even more daunting. Almost half the rally’s competitive distance is packed into two loops of three speed tests in the Cabreira Mountains. But unlike Friday, crews do have the respite of a mid-leg service halt. For those who survive the mountains, the day ends with a coastal street stage in Porto after 97.43 miles of action.
WRC Rally Portugal, leading positions after Day One, SS9
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h25m43.3s
2 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +13.6s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +44.4s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +49.6s
5 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m00.7s
6 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m15.6s
7 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m46.4s
8 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m49.3s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +2m03.6s
10 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +3m38.4s
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