Jari-Matti Latvala leads a blue oval dominated Rally Portugal, after championship leader Sebastien Loeb made a rare mistake that forced the Frenchman’s retirement from the rally.
Works Ford team-mate Petter Solberg backed up the Finn in second place, 2.6 seconds off the pace, with the sole remaining Citroen-Total car of Mikko Hirvonen 5 seconds behind Latvala in third.
It was Solberg that made the brighter start, winning the opening two stages of the day and building himself a slender 2.2 second lead over Latvala. The Citroens meanwhile were struggling, with the choice to be among the first cars to run hurting their performance on the loose gravel.
Stage Three was worst of all for Mini however – Dani Sordo dropped over two minutes after all the headlights bar one on his Countryman WRC failed at the start of the stage, and by the end he called it a day due to electrical failure. Local favourite Armindo Araujo lost over five minutes after a driving mistake left him stuck in a ditch.
Loeb had settled into third place in the opening two stages, but the following stage proved that even the best drivers can be susceptible to basic human error. After mis-heading a pacenote approaching a crest, Loeb turned the car in the wrong direction, throwing the car off the road and damaging the rollcage badly enough to force his retirement from the rally.
While the retirement may have boosted Ford’s chances of victory this weekend, the same stage demonstrated that no team is immune to problems. Ford satellite driver Mads Ostberg had been doing a solid job, but a puncture cost the Norwegian over 20 seconds and demoted him outside the top 5.
However Ott Tanak wrapped up a mostly positive day for Ford, taking his first stage win of the rally, albeit rain late in the running of said stage allowed Hirvonen to close the gap on the leading Fords.
“I think overall it’s been a good evening,” said Latvala. “It’s not been an easy evening, but I think our positions have paid off,”
Hayden Paddon leads the SWRC class after tonight’s stages, after a slow time by championship rival Craig Breen in the second stage allowed the former to build a sizeable gap. Paddon leads by 25 seconds, with Yazeed Al Rahji over a minute down in the final podium position.