JARI-Matti Latvala laid an early claim to Vodafone Rally de Portugal by topping a closely-contested Shakedown session on Thursday morning (local time).
The Toyota driver edged Sébastien Ogier (Fiesta) and Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) in an unofficial competition that saw the first eight cars covered by just one second.
The run ndoubtedly was a confidence boost for Latvala, who has had a disappointing season so far. He is eighth in the points after retiring from the previous two rounds in Corsica and Argentina and views Portugal as an opportunity to turn around his fortunes.
“Springtime has been difficult for me and I would really like to use this rally as a turning points for the season. I want to see the finish line, have a clean rally and find the speed I can do. I believe the car is competitive enough, so I have to stay cool and do my job,” he said.
Kris Meeke, driving a Citroën C3, and Andreas Mikkelsen, in a Hyundai, were tied in fourth, 0.4sec adrift of Ogier and Neuville. Hayden Paddon, returning to the WRC after a three-rally absence, was a further tenth behind in sixth.
Paddon will be playing for high stakes on the WRC’s first European gravel round of the season.
Back at the wheel of a factory Hyundai i20 Coupe for the first time since Rally Sweden in February, Paddon will be anxious to prove his value to the team in the part-time program it has allowed him this season.
Already the most successful Down Under WRC driver with a 2016 Rally Argentina victory to his credit, the 31-year-old South Islander knows another strong, reliable performance is vital to his championship future.
His 11 weeks on the WRC bench haven’t been wasted, though. After two crushing wins in his personal team’s Hyundai i20 AP4 in New Zealand, Paddon believe he’s overcome some weak areas in his driving and is brimming with fight and determination.
“That’s put me in a good position to build from and it’s a great confidence-builder,” he said.
“It’s a bit crazy to think 11 weeks in New Zealand have already passed, but it was the perfect reset I needed.”
Paddon is part of a four-car squad with Neuville, Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo as Hyundai Motorsport bids to keep Ford-backed M-Sport at bay in the manufacturers’ championship and to peg back Ogier’s lead over Neuville in the drivers’ standings.
Toyota’s Ott Tänak is also a fresh threat after winning the last round in Argentina so comprehensively that his rivals, including five-time champion Ogier, were left struggling for answers.
Citroën has two Rally Portugal winners in its team, Meeke (2016) and Mads Østberg (2012), plus Irishman Craig Breen, who’s keen to convert his impressive consistency into a higher placing on the northern Portugal stages around the coastal city of Porto.
For all drivers – and fans – the highlight of Vodafone Rally de Portugal will be Sunday’s stomach-churning Fafe jump. Huge crowds will throng one of the WRC’s most iconic locations to watch the championship’s elite soar skywards through a double pass of the 11.18km stage, hoping to see someone leap beyond Esapekka Lappi’s 2017 mark of 33 metres.
The rally begins on Thursday night (local time) with a ceremonial start before a super special stage at the Lousada rallycross circuit. On Friday, there are two loops of three stages to the north near the Spanish border, then two runs around a street stage in Porto, always a massive crowd-pleaser.
On Saturday the rally heads into the Cabreira Mountains to the east, for three stages each run twice, before five stages on Sunday in and around Fafe.
The stages comprise soft and sandy gravel, which offers little grip for early starters on the first pass, then often forms deep ruts on the second pass. There are 20 special stages, with a total competitive distance of 358.19 kilometres.
1 Latvala / Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) 3:03.5
2= Ogier / Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta WRC), Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:03.8
4= Meeke / Nagle (Citroën C3 WRC), Mikkelsen / Jaeger (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:04.2
6 Paddon / Marshall (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:04.3
7= Tänak / Jarveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC), Lappi / Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) 3:04.5
9 Sordo / Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 WRC) 3:04.9
10 Suninen / Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) 3:05.4