Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala gave his faltering 2015 title challenge a much-needed kick-start by wrapping up victory in Portugal, his first since Rally France 2014. The 30 year-old’s 13th career win came after a tense final day dual with championship leader and teammate Sébastien Ogier who recovered from a slow start to come within 8.2secs of snatching top honours. A further 20.4secs behind in third was Andreas Mikkelsen who passed Rally Argentina winner Kris Meeke on the final day to complete a VW podium lockout.
WRC’s first step back on to European soil for three months presents the teams and drivers with that rarest of beasts; a completely new rally. Portugal may be a shoe-in on the annual WRC tour but for the first time in 14 years the Iberian event is not based in the country’s southern Algarve region and instead ups sticks to the far less familiar gravel tracks around Matosinhos, to the north of Porto. A brand new rally calls for brand new pace notes, meaning a fair few late nights for co-drivers spent crunching the all-important numbers gleaned from the pre-event recce. Whilst the route may have changed, drivers must still cope with the loose gravel surface underfoot as well as souring early summer temperatures, putting a real onus on choosing the right rubber.
One man whose confidence was at a particularly low ebb heading to Portugal was Jari-Matti Latvala. The Polo driver had failed to register a point in all of the previous three events, leaving him way back in ninth in the drivers’ standings and desperately in need of a big performance to kick-start his season. The one consolation Latvala could draw from his lowly championship placing was a much lower road position relative to that of his main rivals. With Friday morning’s soft, gravelly stages well swept by the early runners, Latvala was left with a clean line through which to pilot his Polo R and duly delivered some impressive times, including two stage wins to accumulate an 11.1sec cushion over Kris Meeke by the end of the day. The Brit, fresh from his emotional triumph in Argentina, looked to have carried his good form back across the Atlantic with him and finished the day as Latvala’s main challenger. Earlier, the lead had changed hands three times in as many stages, with Andreas Mikkelsen, Dani Sordo and Latvala himself each clocking up fastest times on stages 1, 2 and 4.
After defying the odds in Mexico with and displaying blistering pace from the off despite running first on the road, world champion Sébastien Ogier was finding the going far tougher out-front on Portugal. With no ‘rails’ in the road to follow, the VW number one struggled badly for grip throughout the day, describing road sweeping conditions as some of the most challenging he had ever encountered. A win on stage 6 and a second place behind Latvala on stage 7 did his cause no harm, however he was still left a considerable 25.9secs adrift of the Finn in sixth by the end of the day.
There were mixed reviews in the M-Sport camp for the new generation Ford Fiesta RS. While Ott Tänak enjoyed a good first day in the new office by securing fourth, just 1.8secs behind Mikkelsen, teammate Elfyn Evans frustratingly missed the opportunity to get his hands on the new hardware as his car developed a throttle problem in the service park.
Despite winning the opening stage, Dani Sordo’s Friday was mixed for the most part. Struggling to find any real consistency, he ended the day just ahead of Ogier in fifth. The second Hyundai of Thierry Neuville was four places further back in ninth by Friday evening. The Belgian unusually opted for a pair of the slower hard compound tyres in the hope of deploying his soft set of rubbers to claw back time later in the event.
As Saturday dawned on the Iberian Peninsula, one man determined to make light of the oppressive conditions was Sébastien Ogier. Opening the roads for a second day under new rules introduced for 2015, the Frenchman should by rights have endured another leg of frustration but instead blitzed the timing boards with a series of superb drives, ending the day with three stage wins to his name. This pace had catapulted the world champion up from sixth to second by Saturday evening to leave him just 9.5secs off Latvala, reeling in and passing the likes of Tänak , Mikkelsen and Meeke in the process.
The latter enjoyed a flying start and initially looked to be the biggest threat to Latvala’s position. However, after a pair of stage wins in the morning that saw him close to within a tantalising 6.1secs of the leader, Meeke’s tyres began to fade and the charge was halted. He ended Saturday 10.5sec behind Ogier and 1.1sec ahead of fourth-placed Mikkelsen.
Tänak had failed to keep pace with the podium challengers but drove tidily to fifth nonetheless. Further back, Dani Sordo was the chief beneficiary of a final stage scrap, the Spaniard being able to nudge ahead of fellow Hyundai driver Hayden Paddon and Citroën’s Mads Østberg after the latter pair suffered gearbox and turbo issues respectively.
There was more woe for Wales’ Elfyn Evans who was side-lined for the second consecutive day after the front right suspension on his Fiesta RS was shattered following an impact with a rock on Saturday’s opener. The very same test also claimed the scalp of Thierry Neuville whose i20 ended up belly up in the Portuguese gravel.
Sunday’s sprint finish left leader Latvala with no margin for error. Despite his lightning pace, Ogier would find it challenging to cut the deficit in little more than 50km of stages but equally one wheel out of line for the Finn would leave him scuppered with no time to recover. In the final reckoning, it was Ogier who struck the first blow, thrilling the tens of thousands of fans who packed the Fafe hillside along the final 2km section of stage 14. However, the 1.7secs gained over Latvala was damage that the Finn could afford to sustain and one test later he had effectively blunted Ogier’s charge by going 2.6secs faster than his VW colleague on the 32km stage 15. Top honors on the event-closing power stage, plus three bonus points, went to Ogier but a solid drive to second place ensured that Latvala would take the ultimate prize.
This triumph, his first in Portugal, was especially gratifying, following what the Finn described as one of the worst periods of his WRC career. Given the hostile conditions that confronted him for most of the rally, Ogier was rightly content with his performance. He maintains a firm grip on the 2015 championship and limits the gains made by his own teammate in Portugal. Further back, Andreas Mikkelsen looked to be in for a torrid time consolidating his third position with Meeke breathing down his neck. That was until the Citroën man’s attack was compromised on the penultimate test by a broken anti-roll bar. The Brit can take some solace from the fact that he was once again the only driver capable of mounting a serious threat to the Volkswagens.
Overall, the top of the drivers’ championship still remains decidedly VW-heavy, with Ogier now galloping ahead on 105 points and Mikkelsen his nearest rival on 63. Round six takes us to the heart of the Mediterranean for the all-gravel Rally Italia Sardegna from the 11th – 14th June.
Final Results: Round 5 – Rally Portugal
|POS||DRIVER||TEAM….||POINTS…..||TOTAL TIME….||DIFF PREV….||DIFF 1ST|