It fell to the reigning FIA World Rally Champion to seize the initiative in last weekend’s Rally Portugal, Sebastian Ogier having defied the limitations placed on him by his poor running order to claim victory on this, a deceptively tricky rally. It was a win which came to him as the rally went on, one which owed as much to guile and restraint as it did out and out pace, and it, therefore, underlined one of Ogier’s strongest (yet all too often overlooked) skills, the ability to drive within his limits and to see the bigger picture in the white hot heat of WRC competition.
Friday’s opening leg gave little warning as to who the eventual victor would turn out to be, though it did further confirm just how competitive the WRC is in 2017, with no less than 6 different rally leaders in as many stages, covered by a handful of seconds. Hayden Paddon sought to put his recent dramas behind him by powering into the lead on the opening Viana do Castelo stage, though his charge was blunted by an engine gremlin which stalled his engine in a manner, not unlike early ’90s immobiliser!
Though he was able to get it going again within minutes it was a sign of things to come, and the issue would again rear its head some stages later. This allowed Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala through into the lead, closely (and we really do mean closely) followed by Kris Meeke, Ott Tanak and Craig Breen, all of whom set identical times on the Ponte de Lima stage; 19:14.0.
Friday afternoon brought the almost inevitable wave of drama, one which broke up and down the WRC field. Stéphane Lefebvre was first to exit stage left thanks to a hefty crash, and the Frenchman’s day was further complicated by his decision to make his way through the rest of the stages in his crippled Citroen. This well and truly enraged the next man on the road Esapekka Lappi in his Yaris, and the Toyota man briefly turned the airwaves blue as he relayed his concerns to the rest of the Toyota team.
It fell to the second running of Ponte de Lima (SS7) to deliver the real surprises of the rally though, with Latvala first to hit trouble. He clipped a bank, partially rolled and had to complete the rest of the run (and the Braga stage) in conservative road mode, dropping all the way to thirteenth in the process and also holding up the Hyundai of Thierry Neuville. Meeke was fast out of the gate but his charge faltered, first with a puncture, then with broken suspension, while Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon’s run of renewed form was brought to an abrupt end by the same engine issues that stalked him earlier on Friday morning, and he dropped to twenty-fourth. All of this left Ott Tanak, the man who’d begun SS7 with a scant 0.1-second lead, in the plum seat at the end of the day, with Dani Sordo and Ogier 3.6 seconds and 6.2 seconds further back respectively. Neuville was promoted to fourth after officials opted to award him 11.6 seconds to compensate for the time lost behind Latvala, ahead of Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans.
Anyone who thought that Rally Portugal had sprung its last surprise was proved utterly wrong on Saturday morning’s opening loop of stages. The M-Sport pairing of Tanak and Ogier spent SS10, SS11 and most of SS12 trading fastest times, and the thrilling battle was only ended when the Estonian slid wide and damaged his car midway through the final test of Saturday morning, a situation made all the more galling as he was on course to record the fastest stage time just ahead of Ogier. The tiny error was heavily punished and Tanak eventually dropped a full 1 minute and 23.1 seconds to his illustrious teammate, forcing him all the way down to fifth. Not for the first time this year Ogier was perfectly positioned to capitalise on the errors of others, and the Frenchman eased into near 20 second lead, well clear of Sordo and the reinvigorated Neuville.
Saturday afternoon once again proved just why Ogier is the finest driver of his generation and one of the best the sport has ever known. He drove with a mix of guile and supreme intelligence, pacing himself on the first of the afternoon’s tests in order to conserve his tyres, and this duly enabled him to build a 23-second lead by mid afternoon. Neuville fought back in impressively tenacious fashion as the day progressed though, the Belgian beating the world champion on SS15 Amarante to end the day just 16.8 seconds behind. Sordo consolidated third ahead of a disappointed Tanak but lost sight of the leading pair, while Craig Breen and Elfyn Evans cemented fifth and sixth respectively.
Many were salivating at the prospect of watching an all or nothing scuffle between an imperious Ogier with a point to prove, and a hard-charging Neuville with the bit between his teeth, but it wasn’t to be. The Belgian, clearly mindful of his championship aspirations, opted to spend Sunday in preservation mode, only venturing outside of his comfort area to challenge Tanak (unsuccessfully) for the second running of Fafe, the Power Stage. It wasn’t the conclusion we’ve become accustomed to this year, but that probably owes more to the straight up lunacy of the likes of Rally Mexico and Rally Argentina in 2017. You could say that we’ve been a tad spoilt!
As the Portuguese dust began to settle for the final time the finishing classification became clear. Ogier had won by 15.6 seconds and Neuville was comfortably ahead of Sordo, a full 46.1 seconds to the good. Next came a Tanak 28.5 seconds ahead of Craig Breen, the Irishman the best placed Citroen driver in an even the French concern will probably want to forget, as has been the case with far too many rallies this season. Evans was 1.13.2 seconds behind Breen but comfortably ahead of Hanninen’s Yaris in seventh, with Ostberg, Latvala, and Lappi rounding out the top ten.
The relative calm of Sunday belies what was undoubtedly a chaotic rally, yet also one which clearly showcased the leading championship contender’s relative skills. Ogier was richly rewarded for his ability to play the long game, battling through to first from the lower reaches of the top 10 to strengthen his 2017 title ambitions to take what turned out to be a commanding win. Neuville’s Rally Portugal was similarly restrained; he modified his driving style to take the rutted roads into account and soon found his times improving, rising from twelfth to take the runner-up spot in some style. It’s about this point in the season when things begin to crystallise and when the championship protagonists begin to emerge, and both Ogier and Neuville have staked their claim on 2017’s ultimate prize with their respective performances in Portugal.
Next up, Italy on the 8 June.