SÉBASTIEN Ogier ended the penultimate leg on Vodafone Rally de Portugal with a 16.8sec advantage over Thierry Neuville after leader Ott Tänak’s hopes of a maiden FIA World Rally Championship win ended when he hit a bank on Saturday.
Remarkably, reigning WRC champion Ogier became the seventh driver to lead this topsy-turvy encounter on rough dirt roads in the north of the country.
He has just four speed tests o Sunday in which to fend off Neuville to equal Markku Alen’s record of five Portuguese victories.
M-Sport Ford Fiesta team-mates Tänak and Ogier shared the honours with a win each in the opening two special stages. The Estonian stretched his advantage to 6.3sec but suffered brake and suspension damage in the impact and dropped nearly 90sec.
New leader Ogier stretched his advantage over Neuville to 23.0sec before the Belgian retaliated in the final test to give himself a glimmer of hope in his Hyundai i20 Coupe.
Ogier said, “I didn’t push hard in the final stage because it was rough at the end and Thierry had a good run. I think I managed my tyres too much, maybe I was a bit too cautious.
“I’m happy with the gap I have but we still have to push tomorrow as Thierry will fight to the end.”
Having modified his driving style on Friday to match the conditions, Neuville did so again on Saturday.
“I was driving too sideways so I went back to my normal rhythm,” he said.
Dani Sordo was third, more than half a minute behind teammate Neuville. He struggled with his i20’s handling and was lucky to finish the final stage with a badly damaged rear wheel.
Tänak recovered to fourth after passing Craig Breen’s Citroën C3 in the final test. A tyre choice mistake left the Irishman with badly-worn rear rubber and he spun. The gap is 2.8sec.
Elfyn Evans completed the top six in a Fiesta. The Welshman was delayed by a puncture and a broken damper but ended almost 30sec clear of Finn Juho Hänninen, who dropped nearly a minute when his Toyota Yaris stopped in the penultimate test.
Sunday’s finale is centred around the legendary Fafe roads. After an opening pass through the test, competitors drive two new stages before returning for the final live TV Power Stage, with bonus points for the five fastest drivers. The four tests cover 42.93km.
Outright standings after Saturday:
1 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC) 3h15m24.6s
2 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +16.8s
3 Dani Sordo/Marc Marti (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +51.3s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m29.6s
5 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m32.4s
6 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +3m01.8s
7 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +3m29.8s
8 Mads Ostberg/Ola Floene (Ford Fiesta WRC) +5m16.6s
9 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +5m32.7s
10 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Skoda Fabia R5): +7m06.6s