THIERRY Neuville appears set re-take the FIA World Rally Championship lead with only a short final day standing between him and a points-boosting victory in Vodafone Rally de Portugal.
The Hyundai driver doubled his advantage in Saturday’s second leg of the gravel rally as his opposition continued to recover from a chaotic Friday that claimed five top runners.
Neuville starts Sunday’s short final leg of round six with a 39.8sec advantage in his Hyundai i20. Victory would propel him past defending World Champion Sébastien Ogier and back to the lead in the drivers’ standings, which he last held after his previous win in Sweden in February.
Conditions on Saturday were more benign than Friday, when rock-strewn dirt roads caused carnage among the frontrunners, and the Belgian focused on building time in the double pass through the rally’s longest stage, 37.60km Amarante.
He protected his Michelin tyres through the two previous stages of the morning and afternoon loops, before attacking in Amarante for two crucial wins. He distanced closest rival Elfyn Evans on both occasions to build a comfortable advantage.
“I was comfortable in the car, especially in the long stage. I tried to make a difference in there and it worked twice. It’s not finished yet but it could be a great weekend,” said Neuville, whose conservative mix of hard and soft compound tyres were ideal for the day’s wet final test.
Evans won two of the day’s six stages in his Ford Fiesta, one more than Neuville, and the Welshman looked increasingly secure in second as the day progressed. He struggled for confidence in both passes through Amarante, but had a 17.4sec margin over Dani Sordo.
The Spaniard stiffened his i20’s set-up following the morning’s opening test but slipped back into the clutches of Teemu Suninen with a final stage spin. The margin between them narrowed to 4.7sec, setting up a final-day scenario where either two Hyundais or two M-Sport Fords could be on the podium – a vital factor in the fight between the two teams for the manufacturers’ championship.
The young Suninen had a stellar day in his Ford Fiesta, holding off fellow Finn Esapekka Lappi in a furious fight. Both were on the limit throughout as they traded seconds in every stage and Lappi ended 11.1sec adrift in his Toyota Yaris.
Mads Østberg was a distant sixth, the Norwegian conceding almost a minute after sliding onto a bank at a muddy corner. The Citroën C3 driver was almost 1min 40sec clear of team-mate Craig Breen.
Breen endured a tough day opening the roads in sandy conditions, but gained a place following more disappointment for Kris Meeke in the French squad’s third C3.
The Ulsterman slid wide on a fast left bend and his C3 rolled heavily down a bank and into trees. Both Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle were unhurt.
Pontus Tidemand took the WRC 2 lead and held eighth place, ahead of fellow support category drivers Lukasz Pieniazek and Stéphane Lefebvre.
Of Friday’s casualties, Andreas Mikkelsen (Hyundai), Ogier (Ford) and Jari-Matti Latvala (Toyota) finished Saturday in 18th, 23rd and 31st places respectively, with Latvala claiming two stage wins. Ott Tänak and Hayden Paddon (Hyundai) did not re-join the rally.
Five more stages covering 51.53km await drivers on Sunday, including two passes through the classic Fafe test and its famous jump. The second pass forms the Power Stage with bonus points on offer to the fastest five drivers.
Outright standings after Saturday:
1 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 3h16m30.0s
2 Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +39.8s
3 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +57.2s
4 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1m01.9s
5 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m13.0s
6 Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +3m14.1s
7 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +4m53.1s
8 Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +12m52.7s
9 Lukasz Pieniazek/Przemyslaw Mazur (Skoda Fabia R5) +14m12.1s
10 Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 R5) +15m00.4s