Hyundai‘s Thierry Neuville stormed to a first ever Rally Portugal victory to overtake Sébastien Ogier at the top of the World Rally Championship drivers’ standings.
Neuville fended off stiff competition from Ogier’s M-Sport Ford teammate Elfyn Evans to win his second rally of the campaign by 40.0 seconds over the Welshman.
Teemu Suninen outlasted Toyota‘s Esapekka Lappi and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo to clinch his maiden WRC podium for M-Sport.
Lappi banished any disappointed from missing out on the podium by claiming maximum points in the Fafe power stage ahead of championship challenger Neuville, while the latter’s main title rival Ogier failed to trouble the times and ended a miserable Rally Portugal scoreless and second in the standings.
Neuville began the fourth and final day of action in Southern Europe taking a tentative approach knowing a strong points haul was virtually guaranteed – relinquishing a small amount of time to Evans in the first stage who pushed to close the gap and fly the Ford flag in the absence of Ogier at the front.
Having incurred a costly 10-second time penalty for collecting some tyres during the Porto street stages on Friday evening, a frustrated Sordo dropped from the podium battle into fifth – leaving young Finnish duo Suninen and Lappi to battle for the remaining prize in the latter stages.
Sordo answered back with a scorching time through the first loop of Fafe to muscle back ahead of Lappi, as Ogier restored some pride with a first stage victory of an incident-filled rally for the Frenchman.
Jari-Matti Latvala also made his presence felt by topping the timesheets in SS18, having joined Ogier in premature retirement after a stage three suspension failure.
Disappointed by the early losses of both Ott Tanak and Latvala on day two, Toyota turned to Lappi to rescue some decent points for the South Korean manufacturer – and the Finn delivered by hauling himself above his more experienced rival Sordo into fourth behind Suninen.
As Lappi looked to apply late pressure on his compatriot in the podium battle, Suninen defied his relative inexperience with a classy drive to top the SS19 leaderboard, effectively cementing his spot on the rostrum with only one stage left to navigate.
Despite Evans cutting the gap back to Neuville by 3.7 seconds on the penultimate stage, the Belgian protected a comfortable 37.5 second advantage heading into the second and final Fafe loop with victory and the title lead firmly in sight.
The drivers took to the gravel roads to excite a buoyant crowd over the notorious Fafe jump, with reigning champion Ogier waving goodbye to his title lead with a crowd-pleasing leap to provisionally top the power stage times in the hopes of clawing some points back to fierce adversary Neuville.
Sordo’s hopes of snatching fourth faded despite an impressive power stage performance, falling short of Lappi’s time as the latter set the pace and clinched the maximum five bonus points on offer with the fastest time.
Suninen kept his cool to cap a marvellous event with a first ever podium, while the classy Neuville punctuated his dominant effort with four bonus points and a near-perfect 29-point haul overall to win Rally Portugal and take firm control in the title race.
The three Rally 2 contenders who fell by the wayside during the rally – Ogier, Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen – all failed to score while Citroen duo Mads Ostberg and Craig Breen finished sixth and seventh respectively to salvage some points for the team after Kris Meeke‘s dramatic accident on Saturday.
Reigning WRC2 champion Pontus Tidemand capitalised on others’ misfortunes to clinch his third victory of the season ahead of Lukasz Pieniazek and Stephane Lefebvre. All three finished inside the overall top 10 to net some additional WRC championship points, after an enthralling and attritional Saturday saw early category contender Gus Greensmith retire with suspension failure after a pair of punctures.
Denis Radstrom extended his JWRC championship lead with his second victory of the season, while the Swede’s nearest title rivals Jean-Baptiste Franceschi and Emil Bergkvist both failed to score points. Front-end damage put paid to Callum Devine‘s chance of netting a podium, as Italian Enrico Oldrati clinched second and Australian David Holder sealed a first ever podium in the junior category with third.
WRC RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS20
1 Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 3:49:46.9
2 Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC + 40.0
3 Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC + 47.3
4 Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC + 54.7
5 Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC + 1:00.9
6 Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC + 3:33.5
7 Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC + 5:23.0
WRC2 RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS20
1 Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:03:57.4
2 Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5 + 2:06.5
3 Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5 + 2:23.5
4 Pierre-Louis Loubet – Hyundai i20 R5 + 3:10.5
5 Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5 + 4:31.6