Mikko Hirvonen had a trouble free day to take a lead of over one minute into the final day of Rally Portugal, but it was Ford rival Petter Solberg making the biggest impression after jumping from 13th to 5th by winning four out of the day’s six stages.
The limelight was off Hirvonen at the start of the day, with the lower running cars setting the best times. Dani Sordo started the day where he had left off previously, winning the opening stage ahead of Ford duo Jari-Matti Latvala and Solberg. There was a significant shift near the top of the leaderboard however, as Mads Ostberg took swathes of time out of Evgeny Novikov to snatch second place away from his fellow Ford driver.
“The plan was to push if it was raining but it's not raining, it's good grip now,” explained Novikov. “I don't know the stages so well so I don't want to push. I want to keep my podium position.”
Novikov continued haemmorhaging time on the following stage, after a watersplash flooded his engine and started causing it to misfire. Sordo also hit bad luck by picking up a puncture, yet the Spaniard was still second quickest, 4.4s down on the flying Solberg.
“I'm pushing a bit,” Solberg said. “The set-up for the first stage was not working but for this one it was perfect – it is what we were expecting.”
The final stage of the morning loop was more of the same, but now Ostberg was also struggling, his Fiesta’s engine dropping a cylinder and increasing the gap to Hirvonen to almost 50 seconds. There was bad news for all of the satellite Fords, with Ott Tanak delayed out of service due to a broken propshaft, then hitting a rock in the opening stage, and Martin Prokop had an electrical fault in his Fiesta RS.
Solberg continued his morning progress by winning Stage 15 and moving up to sixth place, but fellow pace-setters Sordo and Latvala hit trouble. The former’s Mini had an exhaust fault casuing fumes to fill the cockpit, forcing him to pull over and perform some emergency repairs on the rear bumper, followed by the co-driver’s side window falling off. Latvala meanwhile had to deal with a fuel pressure problem, undoing all of the progress he had managed in the first loop of stages.
There were further problems up and down the field, most notably for fourth placed Patrik Sandell, who hit a tree after going wide over a crest, and Jari Ketomaa struggled on with failing rear brakes. While Armindo Araujo had a minor impact on the stage, it got far worse for the Portuguese native on the following test, ripping the front-right off his Mini Countryman.
Solberg had gone fastest yet again, moving up to his day’s target of fourth place, closely followed by Sordo, now complaining of the dust entering his car as a result of his Stage 14 problems. It made little different in the final test of the day though, with the Spaniard going quickest.
Solberg had hit more trouble again however. Broken power steering cost him around a minute in the 23km final stage, dropping him to fifth place behind Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari driver has stayed out of trouble so far this weekend and looks set to earn a good haul of points, and by following this method Dennis Kuipers, Sebastien Ogier and Peter van Merksteijn Jr. have slotted into the points paying positions of 7th, 8th and 9th respectively.
Yazeed Al Rajhi continues to lead the SWRC class, with a comfortable 8 minute lead over fellow Fiesta driver Maciek Oleksowicz. The man to watch was Hayden Paddon, running under Rally2 regulations and desperate to make up positions. He managed exactly that, overturning the seven minute defecit to regional championship driver Pedro Merieles and taking third place away, and with Oleksowicz within a minute of the New Zealander, looks set to take the middle step of the podium by Sunday afternoon.
Saturday was the final day for the WRC Academy class, and Alister Fisher took the spoils in the first round of the season. Fisher had started the rally as part of a three way battle for the lead along with Fredrik Ahlin and Brendan Reeves, but the treacherous conditions of Friday’s stages caused Ahlin to have a minor off and damage his Fiesta R2, while Reeves struggled to keep up with Fisher. While Reeves tried to make amends on the final day, he was not able to make inroads on Fisher’s lead, and fell short by 40 seconds. Ahlin’s problems left the final podium spot to class rookie Pontus Tidemand.
Nine of the ten Academy starters made it to the finish – Timo van der Marel and Jose Suarez were 4th and 5th, with the recovering Ahlin in 6th. Elfyn Evans, son of BRC regular Gwyndaf Evans, finished 7th after losing 14 minutes due to an incident on Friday. Joao Silva was 8th ahead of Scot John MacCrone, who was forced to restart under Rally2 regulations after breaking his Fiesta on only the second stage of the event. This meant the only non-finisher was Chris Duplessis, who was running fifth before crashing on the penultimate stage and damaging his car enough to force retirement.
Day Three Overall Classification
|4.||7||N. AL ATTIYAH||M||3:05:43.7||+4:28.9||+6:10.1|
|9.||17||P. VAN MERKSTEIJN (JR)||3:08:12.3||+38.5||+8:38.7|
Day Three SWRC Classification
|1.||36||Y. AL RAJHI||S||3:16:25.4||0.0||0.0|