Welshman Elfyn Evans delivered a devastating performance on the final morning of the 54thVodafone Rally of Portugal to seal a comfortable victory in his Toyota Yaris WRC and give his World Championship aspirations a major boost.
The feat marked Evans’s fourth WRC triumph after a debut win in his native Wales in 2017 and two victories in Sweden and Turkey last season. It went a long way to erasing the disappointment of missing out on victory on the last stage in Croatia recently and moves him to within two points of team-mate Sébastien Ogier at the top of the Drivers’ Championship standings.
Evans and co-driver Scott Martin stunned rival Dani Sordo on the first stage of the final morning by almost doubling their overnight advantage and it was one-way traffic from then on as the Welshman eased to victory over the Spaniard by 28.3 seconds. His success marked the sixth different winner in Portugal in as many years.
“It feels good,” said Evans. “Maybe we were not the fastest crew this weekend but we had good pace and kept out of trouble and had enough pace to keep ahead of Dani this morning. It comes at a good time. I am happy to take this one.”
Runner-up Sordo and new co-driver Borja Rozada were a shining light for the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team on an event that offered so much and ultimately delivered little.
Dramatic second-day retirements for long-time leader Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville threatened to derail the team’s push for the Manufacturers’ title, but both drivers bounced back to claim five and four bonus points for their respective performances on the final Power Stage.
“I am so happy to come back and do second place,” said Sordo. “I was disappointed not to catch Elfyn but, when you are faster, you win.”
Sébastien Ogier was always going to struggle after running the first car on the road during the first leg. But the Frenchman persevered and began a gradual climb up the leader board as the event progressed to seal the final podium position, the seven-time World Champion holding off his talented young Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta in the process.
The fourth-placed Japanese was rewarded with a best WRC finish to date while Ogier maintained his World Championship lead.
The M-Sport World Rally Team has good reason to be optimistic about the rest of the season after impressive performances by both Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux. The Briton equalled his best ever finish in the WRC (Turkey 2020) with fifth place and Fourmaux was sixth on his first appearance in Portugal with the World Rally Car.
Both drivers suffered a puncture and throttle-related issues and may well have been challenging for the podium under different circumstances.
WRC2 cars completed the top 10. Esapekka Lappi was the class of the field and sealed victory and seventh overall in his Movisport Volkswagen Polo GTi. Second-placed Teemu Suninen pushed him hard on day two, but spun his M-Sport Ford Fiesta at the start of the final morning and drifted out of contention for the win.
Mads Østberg was a little disappointed not to be challenging the Finns for victory but the defending champion rounded off the podium places after getting the better of early rally pace-setter Nikolay Gryazin. Turbo and tyre issues ruined the Russian’s chances of claiming a podium finish and he was fourth, with young Oliver Solberg in fifth.
Poland’s Kajetan Kajetanowicz reeled in Citroën driver Yohan Rossel during the course of the final morning to seal victory by 5.6 seconds in WRC3. The Škoda driver and his French rival had been evenly matched for much of the rally. Chris Ingram and Nicolas Ciamin finished third and fourth.
Latvia’s Martin Sesks emerged as a comfortable of the JWRC category. Finland’s Sami Pajari was second and Czech driver Martin Koci rounded off the podium places. Jon Armstrong arrived in Portugal as the series leader but was not able to start the final morning after issues on Saturday afternoon.
Three-time Rally of Portugal winner Armindo Araújo fulfilled his goal of being the leading Portuguese driver to reach the finish. He guided his Škoda to 19th overall. International soccer manager André Villas-Boas also completed his first ever Rally of Portugal in a respectable 33rd position.
The conclusion of the final Power Stage was neutralised for the back-markers after a crash involving Austrian driver Nikolaus Mayr-Melnhof. Notional times were awarded.
Sunday – as it happened
Five short stages were planned and action got underway with the first of two passes through the 9.18km of Felgueiras.
Neuville was handed road-sweeping duties but the main attention was on the battle between Sordo and Evans for the win, especially after Hyundai’s team principal Andrea Adamo had come out and publicly authorised the Spaniard to ‘push’ for the outright victory. The gap at the start of the morning was 10.7 seconds.
Fourmaux was the only one of the opening four drivers to post a time that would have any relevance on the leader board and he carded a 6min 14sec run in his quest to stay in front of Greensmith in the battle for fifth. The Frenchman beat the cautious Briton by half a second to hold a 6.9 advantage over his Ford colleague.
Ogier surged 11.4 seconds clear of Toyota team-mate Katsuta in the tussle for third and Sordo carded a 6min 14.7sec in his quest to overhaul Evans. But the Welshman was in devastating form and a scintillating time of 6min 05.1sec gave the Welshman a lead of 20.3 seconds. He beat Sordo by 9.6 seconds!
“It was a very big push,” said Evans. “It was quite tricky in there and not enough grip. I am quite happy with that…happy enough!”
Lappi benefited from a Suninen spin to extend his WRC2 advantage to 1min 11.8sec, although Gryazin and Østberg beat both Finns on the stage. Solberg complained of intercom issues. Kajetanowicz reduced Rossel’s WRC3 lead to 1.3 seconds on a stage where Ingram set the quickest time.
The Montim stage (8.75km) would be crucial. After Evans’s phenomenal pace in the opener, Sordo would need to respond quickly or the contest was in danger of slipping away from Hyundai.
Fourmaux and Greensmith continued their tussle for fifth place: it was advantage the Briton in Montim and he reduced the Frenchman’s cushion to just nine-tenths of a second.
Sordo responded with a run of 5min 46sec to deprive Greensmith of a potential first ever WRC stage win but Evans was not to be denied and the Welshman won the stage by 1.4 seconds to extend his advantage over the Spaniard to 21.7 seconds.
WRC2 leader Lappi again got the better of Suninen and saw his lead grow to 1min 18sec, although the battle was now between Østberg and Gryazin for third. The Norwegian managed to increase the gap to 11.7 seconds with the fastest WRC2 time.
The first run through the famous Fafe stage (11.18km) - with its legendary jump near the finish - was the perfect dress rehearsal for the afternoon’s Wolf Power Stage finale.
Neuville took the opportunity to make final adjustments to his notes with a high-speed stage-winning run of 6min 39.2sec, although the Belgian admitted he had been cleaning the road surface.
Rovanperä was surprised by the grip levels on his first ever pass through Fafe in a World Rally Car, as Greensmith used his experience to overhaul Fourmaux and snatch fifth overall from his team-mate.
Sordo was unable to match Neuville and appeared resigned to finishing second to the flying Evans. The Spaniard complained that his car was not handling properly and he was struggling for grip. Evans duly increased his lead to 22 seconds. Lappi cruised through in WRC2 with a comfortable cushion over Suninen and Kajetanowicz edged clear of Rossel in WRC3.
With Sordo already cast adrift by Evans, the emphasis was more on survival on the re-run of Felgueiras to preserve the cars for an assault on the final Power Stage. The three stage-opening World Rally Cars were in virtual cruise control through the deceptively cambered special.
Fourmaux stopped the clocks in 6min 07.7sec in his tussle for fifth place with Greensmith and managed to reduce the Briton’s lead to 5.2 seconds. Sordo reached the finish 0.2 seconds slower than the Frenchman, but Evans deprived the Ford driver of a first ever WRC stage win with his third quickest time of the morning. The Welshman would take an outright lead of 26.2 seconds into the final stage.
The leading five WRC2 crews tackled the final televised special before their WRC rivals. Lappi, Suninen and Østberg confirmed the podium places and Lappi earned the maximum five bonus points for the Power Stage win.
Attention then focused on the main protagonists challenging for the World Rally Championship. Crucial WRC points were at stake, especially for the likes of Neuville and Tänak. The former was first up and posted a potent target time of 6min 28.899sec.
Rovanperä fell 5.263 seconds short of the Belgian as Tänak entered the spotlight. He had deliberately not taken a spare wheel on the morning’s loop to try and gain at least a 23kg weight advantage and the Estonian carded a superb time of 6min 27.225sec to beat his team-mate by 1.674sec.
Katsuta, Greensmith and Fourmaux confirmed fourth, fifth and sixth overall and Ogier sealed third place behind Sordo but missed out on maximum Power Stage points by 5.394 seconds. The Frenchman duly claimed three bonus points to maintain his lead in the World Championship.
All eyes were now on Evans who collected a single point for finishing fifth on the Power Stage, but the main prize was a maiden win in Portugal and a fourth career WRC victory.
2021 Vodafone Rally of Portugal – positions after SS20:
1. Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Scott Martin (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 38min 26.2sec
2. Dani Sordo (ESP)/Borja Rozada (ESP) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 3hr 38min 54.5sec
3. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 39min 49.8sec
4. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 40min 54.6sec
6. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)/Renaud Jamoul (FRA) Ford Fiesta WRC 3hr 43min 29.6sec
7. Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC2) 3hr 48min 03.4sec
8. Teemu Suninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Ford Fiesta MkII (WRC2) 3hr 49min 46.2sec
9. Mads Østberg (NOR)/Torstein Eriksen (NOR) Citroën C3 (WRC2) 3hr 50min 27.7sec
10. Nikolay Gryazin (RAF)/Konstantin Alexsandrov (RAF) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC2) 3hr 51min 02.0sec
11. Oliver Solberg (SWE)/Aaron Johnston (IRL) Hyundai NG i20 (WRC2) 3hr 51min 16.9sec
2021 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers – after round 4 (unofficial):
1. Sébastien Ogier (FRA) 79pts
2. Elfyn Evans (GBR) 77pts
3. Thierry Neuville (BEL) 57pts
4. Ott Tänak (EST) 45pts, etc
SS1 Ott Tänak
SS2-6 Dani Sordo
SS7-13 Ott Tänak
SS14-20 Elfyn Evans
SS1 Ott Tänak
SS2 Dani Sordo
SS3 Dani Sordo
SS4 Kalle Rovanperä
SS5 Dani Sordo
SS6 Ott Tänak
SS7 Sébastien Ogier/Elfyn Evans
SS8 Ott Tänak
SS9 Ott Tänak
SS10 Ott Tänak
SS11 Ott Tänak
SS12 Elfyn Evans
SS13 Ott Tänak
SS14 Elfyn Evans
SS15 Dani Sordo
SS16 Elfyn Evans
SS17 Elfyn Evans
SS18 Thierry Neuville
SS19 Elfyn Evans
SS20 Ott Tänak