Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak and Martin Järveoja survived brake issues and a final stage damper scare to take a lead of 4.1 seconds to the final night halt after a further six gravel special stages of the 53rd Vodafone Rally of Portugal through the Cabreira mountains on Saturday.
Toyotas had dominated the event for one and a half days, but a broken damper sidelined Tänak’s team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala before the last special of the day and the Estonian’s own suspension issue meant that Kris Meeke closed to within striking distance with five stages remaining on Sunday.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville managed to edge clear of title rival Sébastien Ogier as the afternoon progressed and started to challenge Meeke for second place. The Belgian reached the night halt 11.8 seconds ahead of Citroën’s six-time World Champion with the two title rivals holding third and fourth in the rankings and set for a useful haul of valuable championship points. Neuville finished the day just 4.9 seconds behind Meeke.
Two fastest times on Saturday morning had enabled Latvala to put the pressure on team-mate Tänak, but the Finn damaged a front-left damper after a heavy landing in the 11th stage and was forced to gingerly complete the next two specials. He managed to maintain second through the first one, but 56 seconds and three places on the leader board disappeared in the second one and Toyota withdrew the Yaris before the re-run of Amarante.
Esapekka Lappi had the measure of fellow Finn Teemu Suninen on day two and the Citroën C3 WRC driver reached the night halt in fifth with Suninen 25.2 seconds behind in sixth in the leading M-Sport Ford Fiesta after Latvala’s demise.
Young Gus Greensmith continued to gain valuable experience on his World Rally Car debut but the Briton left the road and found himself stuck in a ditch on the last stage of the day. His mishap lifted more experienced colleague Elfyn Evans into seventh. The Welshman had managed to pass all the R5 cars after his delays on Friday.
Both Sébastien Loeb and Dani Sordo were following Hyundai team orders and playing a support role to Neuville. Their starting positions were crucial to give the Belgian a slight advantage over Ogier and their own performances suffered as a result.
Kalle Rovanperä had the measure of Czech team-mate Jan Kopecký in the WRC 2 Pro category, but the duo were the class of the field on the WRC debut of the two new factory Škoda Fabia R5 Evos, They held eighth and ninth in the overall classification.
Ole-Christien Veiby’s WRC 2 challenge went up in smoke in Amarante 1 and that left the door wide open for Japan’s Takamoto Katsuta to fight it out with Corsican Pierre-Louis Loubet and Finn Eerik Pietarinen for the win. Loubet regained the initiative in SS11 and Katsuta’s retirement at the end of the next stage enabled Loubet to take a lead of 1min 57.7sec over Sweden’s Emil Bergkvist into the night halt. Loubet also rounded off the top 10.
Saturday afternoon – as it happened
With the brakes repaired on his Toyota Yaris WRC, Tänak took a slender lead of 5.1 seconds over team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala into a repeat of the morning’s three gravel stages through the Cabreira mountains at Vieiro do Minho, Caberceiras de Basto and the sandy surface of Amarante, the longest stage of the rally at 37.60km.
The top five had bunched up during a frenetic morning’s action and just 25.6 seconds separated the leader from fifth-placed Ogier. Elsewhere, sixth-placed Lappi was only 9.1 seconds in front of Suninen and Katsuta held a five-second advantage over Loubet and an 11-second one over Pietarinen in WRC 2.
Evans was first into the 11th stage with three hard and two medium compound tyres aboard his Ford Fiesta WRC. The Welshman survived a half-spin early in the special and still shaved two-tenths of a second off his morning’s time on the heavily rutted surface.
Lappi extended his lead over Suninen by 0.7 seconds, as Ogier beat the Finn by 2.7 seconds and waited anxiously for the time set by title rival Neuville. The Belgian gained more time on Ogier and headed to SS12 with a increased margin of 2.8 seconds.
There was no respite among the leading Toyota trio and Meeke posted the fastest time to date – 12min 52.5sec – to pull further away from Neuville. He also closed to within 4.6 seconds of Latvala’s grip on second after the Finn clipped a rock with the front end after a heavy landing and eased his pace slightly to avoid excess damage to a damper on his Yaris. A third fastest time of the rally for Tänak enabled the Estonian to extend his overall lead to 14.8 seconds.
WRC 2 Pro’s Kopecký drove most of the stage with the bonnet up over the windscreen and dropped another 13.7 seconds to team-mate Rovanperä. Loubet, meanwhile, regained the WRC 2 lead from Katsuta.
Tänak carried out some work on his Yaris on the road section to the re-run of Caberceiras de Basto. At the finish of the previous stage he had expressed concern about hitting something. Greensmith completed the stage with a flat tyre, Lappi extended his lead over Suninen to 12.6 seconds and Latvala continued to haemorrhage time to his rivals with the ongoing damper issue.
Neuville increased his advantage over Ogier to 8.3 seconds and, more importantly, he displaced Latvala to snatch the final podium place and closed to within 6.7 seconds of Meeke’s second overall. Latvala’s agony continued and a 56-second time loss dropped the Finn behind Ogier into fifth overall.
Latvala was not able to make any repairs before the repeat of the daunting Amarante special and he could have expected to fall into the clutches of both Lappi and Suninen before the return to Matosinhos. That was taken out of his hands, however, when Toyota management took the decision to withdraw the Yaris for the day.
Amarante was the unlucky 13th timed test for Greensmith; the Briton left the road after six kilometres and the Fiesta suffered rear-right damage in a ditch. His demise lifted Evans into seventh overall. Neuville set the fastest time to close in on Meeke with the Ulsterman complaining of hand brake issues. Tänak survived a front-right damper issue of his own to secure an overnight advantage of just 4.1 seconds.
Teams will tackle five short special stages and just 51.77 competitive kilometres on day three. Action gets underway with the first of two passes through the 8.76km of Montim (08.25hrs) and this precedes the first of two runs through the famous Fafe stage of 11.18km, starting at 09.08hrs.
The Lluilhas special of 11.89km will be used once from 09.49hrs and the action draws to a conclusion with the re-run of Montim at 10.35hrs and the concluding Fafe Power Stage from 12.18hrs.