Hyundai‘s Thierry Neuville extended his WRC Rally Portugal lead to 39.8 seconds over M-Sport Ford‘s Elfyn Evans on the penultimate day of stages in Southern Europe, while Citroen‘s Kris Meeke was airlifted to hospital for precautionary checks after a heavy stage 12 shunt.
Neuville tightened his grip on top spot with dominant displays across both of the 37.5km Amarante loops – staving off Evans’ threat to open up a comfortable advantage with only five stages left to navigate on Sunday.
Evan’s pursuit of the lead left Spaniard Dani Sordo to drop into the clutches of the rapidly closing Teemu Suninen in fourth, with the Hyundai battler’s advantage over the latter being shaved to just 4.7 seconds with a tantalising final day scrap for the podium in store.
Jari-Matti Latvala opened day three with a stage-topping time around Vieira Do Minho – cashing in on strong road position as the last of the WRC runners to tackle the stage having retired early on Friday through suspension failure.
Neuville held his ground and inched a further 0.9 seconds clear of nearest rival Evans, before the Welshman flexed his muscle and powered to SS11 victory to spark hopes of a late fight at the front.
The Belgian replied with a blistering SS12 effort, taking 17 seconds out of Evans and storming clear at the front of the field with a giant leap towards rally victory and the championship lead.
A pair of Friday punctures for the luckless Meeke shattered any hopes of a strong haul of points for Citroen in Portugal, and a nightmarish event worsened when Meeke slid off the road at high speed and tumbled into the trees in a cloud of dust – the veteran’s rally over after being hospitalised for precautionary checks.
Having dropped off Evans’ quickening pace, Hyundai’s Sordo began falling into the clutches of Finnish duo Suninen and Esapekka Lappi with the Scandinavian pair both pursuing first podiums of their campaigns.
A rare mistake saw Sordo slip up in SS15, suffering a half-spin and relinquishing precious seconds to Suninen to set up a tussle for the rostrum heading into the notorious Fafe finale.
A frantic day in WRC2 saw reliability issues wreak havoc, as reigning class champion Pontus Tidemand emerged at the top of the leaderboard despite starting Saturday 1:44.6s off the pace in fifth place.
Having set his sights on a first WRC victory after hitting the front on Friday, Gus Greensmith‘s chances disappeared after a cruel puncture, before irreparable suspension damage cut his rally frustratingly short.
More issues befell Skoda‘s Lukasz Pieniazek and Citroen’s Stephane Lefebvre, with punctures for the duo allowing Tidemand to pounce and quickly rise to the head of the field – the Swede now overseeing a 1:19.4s advantage over Pieniazek with the win firmly in sight.
JRWC title-leader Denis Radstrom continued to set the pace in the junior category, firing 4:03.7s ahead of Callum Devine while Enrico Oldrati inherited a podium spot after retirements for Emil Bergkvist and Ken Torn.
WRC RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS15
1 Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 3:16:30.0
2 Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC + 39.8
3 Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC + 57.2
4 Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC + 1:01.9
5 Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC + 1:13.0
6 Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC + 3:14.1
7 Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC + 4:53.1
WRC2 RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS15
1 Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5 – 3:29:22.7
2 Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5 + 1:19.4
3 Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5 + 2:07.7
4 Pierre-Louis Loubet – Hyundai i20 R5 + 2:15.8
5 Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5 + 2:54.2