The sense of disappointment at Toyota at the end of the opening leg of the 2018 running of Rally de Portugal was palpable. It was hard to escape the impression that Toyota’s title ambitions, which had appeared unnervingly unstoppable earlier in the month in Argentina, had been well and truly de-railed by the morning’s drama, with both Ott Tanak and Jari-Matti Latvala out of action, the former for the remainder of the rally. Here’s how the drama unfolded on the Iberian Peninsula.
2018 Vodafone Rally de Portugal – Friday
Friday is one of those days which will doubtless be remembered fondly long after the dust has settled and the World Rally Championship circus has de-camped, though not by those in Toyota overalls. Yet it all started so promisingly, Ott Tanak leading the charge after an impressive performance on theThursday night super special stage, a blast around Portugal’s Rallycross track. The wheels came off of the Estonian’s charge just 5km into the opening stage, Viana do Castelo, the lead Toyota clipping a boulder located right on the line, pulled out by Sebastien Ogier’s Fiesta mere minutes beforehand.
A sickening crunch and slow down later, and Tanak’s Yaris could be found at the side of the stage, out of action thanks to a damaged oil cooler and ensuing spike in oil pressure. He was out on the spot, clearly livid and aware that he’d been robbed of a chance of fighting for victory on a surface he’s long gone well on.
Toyota’s problems weren’t over though, not by a long shot. The very next stage saw disaster befall the Yaris of Latvala, the Finn clipping a harmless looking rock on a sweeping right-hander and coming to a stop feet later, the right-front suspension upright dangling uselessly. He was able to re-start under Superally rules and would go onto finish in twenty-fourth, but questions are now being asked as to Latvala’s mindset and the fundamental strength of the Yaris itself.
As the dust settled on the morning’s chaos it was clear that a battle was brewing at the front, with the Hyundai of Dani Sordo leading the Citroen of Kris Meeke by just under 5 seconds, with i20 returnee Hayden Paddon in third and Ogier leading Ford’s charge in fourth.
It wasn’t to last, with Viana do Castelo once again proving a match for the unwary, regardless of their WRC CV or stature; it caught the incumbent drivers’ champion out mere hours later, Ogier clipping a bank and getting off line, then sliding wide on ‘ball bearing’gravel and going off the stage at slow speed. The corner in question was tree lined and devoid of spectators, prompting the Frenchman to kill the Fiesta’s engine without even trying to extricate it. It was the action of a man out of the rally and out of the reckoning, only too aware that he was all but certain to be toppled from atop the championship table.
Ogier’s dramas coincided with a push from Meeke, the Dungannon man fastest through SS5 to reclaim the lead, albeit temporarily. Caminha was up next though, and it served to deal a blow to Meeke’s hopes of victory, the lead Citroen limping through much of the 11km test with a left-rear puncture. Any hope of a fight-back was dashed later in the loop when the C3’s front-left tyre delaminated, costing him another 10 seconds and leading to spectacular scenes in the Porto super special.
Ponte de Lima closed Friday’s afternoon loop of ‘proper’ stages, and while acknowledged as a stern test of both man and machine, it’s probably fair to say that no one expected it to have as much of an impact as it did, least of all Paddon! Yet it was here that the Kiwi’s WRC return went awry, his i20 crashing heavily and coming to rest on the stage, blocking it. The car was out of action for the remainder of the event, and in any case, Paddon had to be flown to Porto for precautionary hospital checks.
Proving that Rally de Portugal is nothing if not an equal opportunities wrecker of title ambitions, Craig Breen and Dani Sordo also hit trouble on the afternoon loop, the former dropping out of the top three thanks to a puncture, the latter falling foul of a damaged OZ wheel and rapidly failing soft compound Michelins. Andreas Mikkelsen also plummeted down the order, the Norwegian forced to drive several stages without power steering.
2018 Vodafone Rally de Portugal – Saturday
The chaos of the opening leg had served to promote a number of drivers further up the order than the might have expected, with Elfyn Evans in second and Dani Sordo in third. The real winner was Thierry Neuville however, the lead Hyundai driver driving in a measured manner to take control of proceedings. He’d end Saturday with a lead of nearly 40 seconds.
Portugal’s mean streak wasn’t quite over though,, and the chaos reached its apex on SS12, the first run through Amarante. It was here that Meeke experienced one of the scariest accidents in his long (and incident filled career), the rear of his C3 WRC sliding wide on a high speed left hand sweeper, catapulting the Citroen into the unforgiving Portuguese undergrowth. That both Meeke and Paul Nagle emerged from the battered car unharmed says a great deal about the innate toughness of the new generation of WRC cars, but its mangled roll cage was testament to the ferocity of the incident and the G-forces involved.
As we later found out, Meeke’s crash didn’t merely buckle his C3’s roll-cage, it proved to be the ‘straw which broke the camel’s back’ in regard to his future Citroen employment prospects. A close battle for the lead, a handful of fastest stage times, a committed performance and a massive crash; Rally de Portugal 2018 summed up Meeke’s last few seasons in a nutshell.
While the top two remained in stasis (and would remain so throughout the remainder of the rally), the battle between Sordo and the third Fiesta of Teemu Suninen was hotting up, particularly after an uncharacteristic spin from the Spaniard on Amarante 2. Sordo then commenced a fightback to reclaim the bottom step of the podium, and while initially successful, a 10 second penalty for clipping a hay bail on the Porto super-special saw him end the day back in fourth, a handful of seconds ahead of Esapekka Lappi in the sole remaining Yaris.
2018 Vodafone Rally de Portugal – Sunday
The final day of the rally couldn’t hope to match Friday and Saturday in terms of drama, though it did deliver a fascinating squabble for third between Suninen, Sordo and Lappi. The trio began the day in that order but it didn’t remain that way for long, Lappi soon overhauling Sordo for fourth, Suninen stretching his legs to pull away from the battle behind.
The position was passed between the Spaniard and the Finn for the remainder of the rally, Lappi the one left sitting pretty by the end, aided by being fastest through the Power Stage. Lappi was subsequently given a 10 second penalty for clipping a plastic barrier on SS9 however, which in turn demoted him to fourth once again, behind Sordo.
Then came the Citroen duo, Mads Ostberg leading the way in sixth, Craig Breen in seventh. They thus rounded out a deeply disappointing rally for the French concern, with the C3’s newfound gravel pace just about the only positive to take away from Portugal. Indeed, Meeke was effusive in his praise for the car early on Friday, even going so far as to say it was the first time he’d felt truly at home in the C3 since its debut last January. It’s just a shame that Portugal might well have been Meeke’s final top-flight appearance in Citroen colours.
Through it all Neuville carried serenely onward, managing the gap between Evans as and when the Welshman’s pace warranted, well aware that the victory was his to throw away. He didn’t, and it was a clearly overjoyed 2017 runner-up who arrived at Porto at the end of Sunday, having taken second place in the Power Stage standing to bag all but one of the points available on the weekend. He now sits atop the championship table with 119 points, 19 ahead of Ogier and 47 ahead of Tanak.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this wasn’t an expected victory for Neuville, rather it was one borne out of tenacity, pluck and a considerable slice of good fortune. That shouldn’t detract from his skill though, and standing atop the podium at the end of three days of brutal competition still involved Neuville putting in a number of scintillating stage times, fending off Elfyn Evans and avoiding Portugal’s bigger boulders and car-swallowing thickets, which wasn’t something that could be said of either of his closest championship contenders. The ball is now very much in Ott Tanak and Sebastien Ogier’s court.
WRC2 – Tidemand triumphs as Portugal takes its toll
Rally Portugal proved to be just as demanding for the WRC2 crews, the R5 class finding it tough going amid the rally’s unforgiving rocks, dust, sand and tree-lined banks. That said, it was still the familiar sight of Pontus Tidemand sitting pretty at the end of the event, the Swede’s eventual winning margin a stunning 2:06.5. It fell to Łukasz Pieniążekto take second place and make it an a Skoda 1-2, the ever improving Citroen C3 R5 of Stephane Lefebvre claiming the third spot.
Other notable finishers included Pierre-Louis Loubet in the Hyundai i20 R5 in fourth, over two minutes ahead of Hiroki Arai in the Mäkinen run Fiesta. Kevin Abbring was forced out the running on Sunday, a mechanical issue forcing the Dutchman from the rally at a late stage.
Tidemand’s comfortable win leaves him with a near insurmountable lead in the WRC2 standings, the Swede on 93 points, second placed man Jan Kopecky on 50. Brit Gus Greensmith finished a distant eighth after showing promise in the early stages and so picked up 4 points, increasing his grip on third place in the WRC2 title race.
2018 Vodafone Rally de Portugal – WRC Results
1- Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC – 3:49:46.6
2 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:50:26.6
3 – Teemu Suninen – Ford Fiesta WRC – 3:50:33.9
4 – Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 WRC – 3:50:47.5 (0:10)
5 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC – 3:50:51.3 (0:10)
6 – Mads Ostberg – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:53:20.1
7 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC – 3:55:02.6
16 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC – 4:14:31.0 (1:10)
24 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 4:38:36.9
2018 Vodafone Rally de Portugal – WRC2 Results
1 – Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:03:57.4
2 – Łukasz Pieniążek – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:06:03.9
3 – Stéphane Lefebvre – Citroen C3 R5 – 4:06:20.9
4 – Pierre-Louis Loubet – Hyundai i20 R5 – 4:07:07.9
5 – Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5 – 4:09:29.0 (1.00)
6 – Juuso Nordgren – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:09:38.5
7 – Benito Guerra Jr – Skoda Fabia R5 – 4:13:01.9
8 – Gus Greensmith – Ford Fiesta R5 – 4:16:02.0 (0:30)
9 – Nils Solans – Ford Fiesta R5 – 4:17:11.1
10 – Pedro Heller – Ford Fiesta R5 – 4:18:43.0