KRIS Meeke led Vodafone Rally de Portugal on Friday night after dominating an action-packed day in the hills overlooking northern Spain.
The Briton, returning for round five the FIA World Rally Championship after missing the previous two rounds, claimed the lead by winning the morning’s opening speed test. He was fastest in four more to head world championship leader Sébastien Ogier by 31.9sec with two days remaining.
Hayden Paddon, winner of the previous round in Argentina, and Ott Tänak provided the drama. Both rolled at the same place in the afternoon loop and their cars caught fire, fierce flames reducing Paddon’s to a shell in minutes.
Both drivers and co-drivers were unhurt.
Two morning stage wins enabled Meeke to build a 11.5sec lead in Citroën’s DS 3 over Ogier, fastest in Thursday night’s curtain-raising test. As the gravel roads became heavily rutted, he stretched his lead to 35.2sec in the repeat pass, before Ogier narrowed the gap in the final two asphalt street tests in Porto.
Road-opener Ogier had the worst of the conditions as he cleaned the gravel in his Volkswagen Polo R to leave better grip for others.
An inspired Dani Sordo demoted the Frenchman from second before a front-left puncture cost 10sec and the Spaniard dropped 5.4sec behind in his Hyundai i20.
Cautious paid dividends for Andreas Mikkelsen, who was fourth in a Polo R, ahead of Thierry Neuville, who climbed the order also after a cautious start and ended the day with a pair of stage wins in downtown Porto. Stéphane Lefebvre was sixth despite a puncture in his DS 3.
Mads Østberg had difficulty changing down gears his Ford Fiesta RS but improvements enabled the Norwegian to climb to seventh, with teammate Eric Camilli eighth.
Jari-Matti Latvala held fourth despite a set-up that was too stiff for the conditions. However, the Finn hit a hole and broke his Polo R’s power steering, dropping more than three minutes as he wrestled it through the remaining stages. He finished 1.1sec ahead of WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand.
The afternoon’s opening stage was cancelled after the crashes of Paddon and Tänak. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard could save only their crash helmets from the burning wreckage, while locals helped Tänak fight the flames with a hose to save his car.
Other notable retirements were Kevin Abbring, sidelined with a broken steering arm after clipping a bank, and Henning Solberg, who went off in SS7.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the weekend. Competitors cover two identical loops of three stages, east of the rally base of Matosinhos, totalling 165.28km.
Overall Classification after Day One
1. K. Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC) 1:28:53.3
2. S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +31.9
3. D. Sordo / M. Marti (Hyundai New Generation i20 WRC) +37.3
4. A. Mikkelsen / A. Jaeger (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +52.3
5. T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai New Generation i20 WRC) +1:12.2
6. S. Lefebvre / G. Moreau (Citroën DS3 WRC) +1:33.5
7. M. Østberg / O. Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:46.0
8. E. Camilli / B. Veillas (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:49.7
9. J-M. Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +3:50.9
10. M. Prokop / J. Tomanek (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +4:06.4