Thierry Neuville survived an attritional day two to lead WRC Rally Portugal by 17.7 seconds ahead of M-Sport Ford‘s Elfyn Evans, while championship leader Sébastien Ogier retired after crashing out in stage five.
Ogier’s dramatic accident highlighted an enthralling first full day in Southern Europe, as Neuville and Hyundai ended the day on top and in prime position to snatch the initiative in an unpredictable drivers’ title race.
Having reignited his championship hopes with victory in Argentina, the fast-starting Ott Tanak scuppered his chances of consecutive wins after thumping a rock and fatally damaging his Toyota Yaris‘ cooling system during SS2 – prematurely ending his rally and handing top spot to the returning Hayden Paddon.
Toyota’s misery was compounded a stage later as the luckless Jari-Matti Latvala stopped with irreparable suspension damage as Tommi Makkinen‘s squad lost both their big-hitters in the space of a few minutes.
With Spaniard Dani Sordo setting the pace in the fourth Hyundai 4.6s ahead of Citroen‘s Kris Meeke through four stages, another twist saw five-time champion Ogier strike a rock on SS6’s tough terrain before skating off the road and into the Portuguese forests to end his rally on a sour note.
Andreas Mikkelsen‘s hopes of netting a first win of the campaign vanished following a sudden power steering failure – leaving the Norwegian to tenaciously wrestle his ailing Hyundai to stage’s end with all hopes of a positive finish lost.
The sixth stage claimed its third victim as Meeke trundled into service with a shredded rear-left tyre, forcing the veteran into using his one and only spare with plenty of ground and a treacherous 27.5km still cover. Paddon inherited the rally lead as Sordo tip-toed through the stage fighting aggressive tyre wear.
Paddon’s joy was short-lived however, as the New Zealander’s rally was brought to an abrupt halt with a heavy accident on SS7 – forcing the Hyundai driver into hospital for precautionary tests after complaining of lower back pains.
Any hopes of a long-awaited maiden WRC victory for Craig Breen disappeared following a puncture in the same stage, seeing the Irishman drop two minutes as Neuville upped the tempo and charged into the rally lead ahead of the quickening Evans.
Meeke cut a frustrated figure after picking up another puncture on the second loop of the Ponte de Lima stage, leaving the Briton with no spare tyres remaining heading into the pair of Porto street stages that rounded off the day’s action.
Needing a strong performance to cement his leading advantage, Neuville rose to the occasion and posted a perfect pair of times to top the timing sheets in both short stages, while the Belgian’s closest challenger Evans dropped crucial time due to combatting the drastic loss of grip in his fading hard tyres.
Needing his one remaining dilapidated but inflated tyre to reach service without incurring a hefty penalty, Citroen’s Meeke stunned the expectant crowds by tackling the street stages with only three tyres – dragging his dangerously damaged car clumsily through the stages and dropping further down the order as a result.
Evans’ struggles ensured Neuville retained a comfortable leading margin, while Sordo rounds out the top three a further 6.6s behind the Welshman.
M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen lies fourth with only 10 seconds separating him and first WRC podium, with compatriot Esapekka Lappi‘s sole-remaining Toyota rounding out the top five.
WRC2 is topped by Briton Gus Greensmith, who boosted his chances of a maiden category win by opening up a commanding 34.3s advantage ahead of Skoda‘s Lukasz Pieniazek.
JRWC title-leader Denis Radstrom set the pace in the junior category across Friday, inching into a five second lead ahead of fellow Swede and championship challenger Emil Bergkvist. Corsica winner Jean-Baptiste Franceschi‘s early retirement leaves Estonian Ken Torn in position to pinch a podium spot.
WRC RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS9
1 Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 1:37:30.7
2 Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC + 17.7
3 Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC + 24.3
4 Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC + 34.4
5 Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC + 45.8
6 Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC + 48.3
7 Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC + 1:18.7
8 Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC + 2:27.3
WRC2 RESULTS AFTER VODAFONE RALLY DE PORTUGAL 2018 SS9
1 Gus Greensmith – Ford Fiesta R5 – 1:44:27.8
2 Lukasz Pieniazek – Skoda Fabia R5 + 34.3
3 Stephane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5 + 34.8
4 Pedro Heller – Ford Fiesta R5 + 1:28.4
5 Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5 + 1:44.6