Kalle Rovanpera claimed his third FIA World Rally Championship victory in as many events on Rally Portugal, the Toyota ace open a commanding lead in the WRC points standings.
The 21-year-old Finn had demoted long-time leader and Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Elfyn Evans late in Saturday’s second leg, then extended his slender advantage over Sunday’s five special stages to win by 15.2s. His victory on the WRC season’s first gravel rally comes after wins on the snow of Sweden and asphalt of Croatia.
It was a result that hadn’t looked likely heading into Friday’s opening leg. As the WRC points leader, Rovanpera was starting first on the challenging gravel and sand special stages in his GR Yaris Rally 1 — effectively, a road sweeper for the later-starting cars — yet still finished the first day in second overall.
On the second leg, he blitzed early leader Evans on Saturday afternoon, got lucky with the timing of a downpour in the day’s penultimate stage, and took a 5.7s lead into Sunday that he duly extended with four special stage wins out of five.
Fastest time on the rally-closing Fafe powerstage gave him a second perfect score of 30 points and extends his championship lead to 46 points over Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville in second.
“At the moment it seems we are on a really good drive,” said Rovanpera. “Starting first here and to fight for the win like this, it was really nice. We saw a lot of issues and tough conditions this weekend and our car was perfect as always, so everybody can be really happy.”
After the turnaround of Saturday afternoon, Evans had no answer to Rovanpera’s continuing pace on Sunday’s final leg. The Welshman started the final stage nine seconds adrift of Rovanpera, but lost another 6.1s by with a time good enough for only fifth and a single Power Stage point.
After a star-crossed start to the season, it was always a case of risk vs. reward for Evans on the final day, so the positive he takes away from second and his best result of the season is a 21-point haul to put some life and hope into his campaign.
“We definitely needed a result, that’s for sure,” he admitted. “Of course, we’re disappointed with the outcome of today, but I take my hat off to Kalle. From my side it’s nice to be back on the podium and we should be able to build from here.”
Evans finished 2m02.1s clear of Dani Sordo’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1. A long-running battle for the final podium place went right down to the wire, with the Spaniard stealing third place away from Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta on the final Fafe test.
Sordo had started the stage with a 2.2s deficit to make up to the GR Yaris driver, but did more than enough in beating his rival by 4.3s. Not that the Hyundai man was particularly ecstatic with the final podium place…
“It’s not a real third position,” he mused. “We were not so quick on the stages all weekend, so I’m a little bit disappointed. If we can finish third, fourth, it’s nice, but I want to be on the pace all the time.”
Behind the fourth-placed Katsuta, Hyundai duo Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak finished fifth and sixth after a rally that promised much at times, but turned into a frustrating list of “what ifs?” Nevertheless, Neuville keeps his second in the WRC points.
Despite brake issues, Pierre-Louis Loubet was best of the M-Sport Fords in the seventh spot, ahead of his fellow Puma Rally1 drivers, Craig Breen and Adrien Fourmaux. Breen had come to Portugal holding third in points, but it was a rally that never quite got going for the Irishman and brake problems on the final day cost him a sixth-place finish, dropping him to sixth in WRC points.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, last-minute drama saw Frenchman Yohan Rossel grab a second consecutive class win in his PH Sport Citroen C3. The reigning WRC3 champ had been trailing long-time leader and near-certain victor Teemu Suninen by almost a minute, until the Finn slid his Hyundai i20N off the road just a few hundred yards into the final Power Stage and remained beached.
Rossel, who also took WRC2 honors on last month’s Croatia Rally, finished 1m12.1s ahead of Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Skoda Fabia Evo), with Brit Chris Ingram completing the podium in his Skoda.
“It’s just a shame for Teemu and I’m sorry for what happened to him,” said a shocked Rossel. “Honestly, second place would have been a good result for us, but now we have a win.”
Next up, drivers face more hot weather and rough roads as the WRC moves to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia next month. Rally Italia Sardegna, based in Alghero, runs June 2-5.
WRC Rally Portugal, final positions after Day Three, SS21
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 3h44m19.2s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +15.2s
3 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m17.3s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m19.4s
5 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +2m37.8s
6 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +4m45.7s
7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Landais (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +5m52.1s
8 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +7m03.4s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +8m09.6s
10 Yohan Rossel/Valentin Sarreaud (Citroen C3 – WRC2 winner) +13m48.9s
WRC Drivers’ Championship after 4 rounds
1 Rovanpera 106 points
2 Neuville 60
3 Katsuta 38
4 Tanak 37
5 Evans 36
WRC Manufacturers’ Championship after 4 rounds
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 175 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 116
3 M-Sport Ford 94
4 TGR Next Generation 42
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