Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera mastered a brutal opening leg on WRC Rally Portugal to head Hyundai rival Dani Sordo overnight.
A thrilling fight in the morning became a matter of survival in the afternoon as heat, dust and punishing rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll in the fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
While several of his rivals faltered, reigning WRC champ Rovanpera won three of the eight special stages in his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 (above) to head Sordo’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1 by 10.7s after more than 75 miles of action during which three different drivers led.
Rovanpera was plagued by excessive understeer in the opening two stages, but setup adjustments later in the morning transformed his car.
The 22-year-old Finn eased ahead of Sordo, who’d inherited the top spot when Ott Tanak’s Ford Puma Rally1 sustained wheel damage, in the fourth of the day’s special stages, Lousa 2, and extended his advantage further when the Spaniard overshot a junction in the penultimate stage.
“It has been a really good day,” said Rovanpera. “Lots of cleaning (of the road surface by the early-starting cars), but still we did a steady day. We were fast, but we also took care of the car and the tires.”
Sordo’s Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville finished the day third, 15.2s behind. The Belgian reclaimed the final podium spot in the leg-ending Figueira da Foz super special, leapfrogging Esapekka Lappi in the third of the Hyundais and M-Sport Ford youngster Pierre-Louis Loubet in the process. Just 1.3s blanketed the three drivers at the end of the day, with Loubet edging Lappi in the super special to take fourth overall by a scant 0.4s.
Fourth was well deserved for Loubet. After winning the day’s opening stage, the Frenchman then looked on the verge of retirement when his car caught fire on the stop line of the morning’s third test, Arganil 1. He and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul were able to continue after extinguishing the flames, later tracing the cause to their Puma’s exhaust.
“The car started to have fire, one kilometer (0.6 miles) before the end of the stage,” Loubet said. “We don’t have any luck this year, it’s crazy.”
Tanak recovered to end the day sixth overall, but Elfyn Evans, who came to Portugal as the WRC points leader, retired after crashing his Toyota on the penultimate test. His teammate, Takamoto Katsuta, had bowed out earlier in the day with alternator failure.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Oliver Solberg finds himself leading by over a minute after the opening leg decimated the field.
Survival was the name of the game as the rough gravel terrain in the Portuguese hills claimed several front-running contenders. Solberg, driving a Skoda Fabia RS, avoided trouble to build a 50.2s advantage over Gus Greensmith’s similar car at the end of the leg.
The Swede had moved into the class lead when early pacesetter Adrien Fourmaux pulled over to change a wheel on his Ford Fiesta in the day’s second stage, Gois 1, and his buffer was extended further when closest challenger Teemu Suninen ran into identical trouble in his Hyundai i20 N.
“It’s been a very good day, but also very difficult,” Solberg admitted. “So rough with so many rocks and things going on. We’ve had a clean day — fast as well — but as least no problems.”
Greensmith, winner of the previous gravel round in Mexico, headed third-placed Yohan Rossel’s Citroen C3 by 10.0s at the end of the leg. The Frenchman faced issues of his own, however, as a technical problem led to him receiving a 40-second time penalty for arriving late to the penultimate stage.
“My wheel was completely broken,” said Rossel, winner of WRC2 on the previous round in Croatia. “I don’t know why. Maybe because the stage before it was really rough? It’s like that — it was my first technical issue in one year, so no problem.”
Championship returnee and former WRC2 champ Andreas Mikkelsen brought his Skoda to the overnight halt in fourth overall, despite also carrying out a wheel change.
If Friday was tough, Saturday is just as daunting. More than 90 miles of action is packed into two loops of three special stages. Crews have the respite of mid-leg service, and a short super special stage at Lousada rounds out the day’s action.
WRC Rally Portugal, leading positions after Day One, SS8
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h22m27.7s
2 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +10.8s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +26.0s
4 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicola Gilsoul (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +26.9s
5 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +27.3s
6 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +1m04.7s
7 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +3m48.2s
8 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +4m38.4s
9 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +4m48.4s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +5m29.3s
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