Britain’s Kris Meeke made a triumphant return to WRC action following a two-month absence by storming to his second career victory at Rally Portugal 2016. Back in the saddle for the Abu Dhabi World Rally Team after missing the two previous rounds in Mexico and Argentina, the 36 year-old swiftly blew away the cobwebs by leading the gravel-based event virtually from start to finish. Building a near-minute lead after the first two legs, the DS3 star was able to comfortably fend off the attentions of chasing Volkswagen duo Andreas Mikkelsen and Sébstien Ogier who completed the podium in second and third respectively. The Northern Irishman’s final margin of victory stood at 29.7secs.
Last year saw Rally Portugal return to its spiritual home in the north of the country for the first time in 14 years with great success. With a year’s worth of experience under their belts, most crews should feel fully familiarised with their new surroundings on a route that remains virtually identical to 2015, with just 6.52km of the total distance different to last year. This means a return to the incredibly popular Fafe stage on Sunday, where fans gather in their thousands to enjoy one of WRC’s most spectacular air shows over the stomach-churning jump. As with every gravel-based event, the early starters must contend with a host of slippery sandy roads where grip is particularly hard to come by on the first passes.
After a brief spin through the Lousada rallycross circuit on Thursday evening, the real hard yards began on Friday morning in northern Portugal. Reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier had led overnight after the short multi-surface sprint on the super special, but as the championship leader opened the roads, he found the soft, sandy conditions far from his liking.
It was a different story for Meeke, starting way down the order by virtue of his lowly championship position. By the time the Northern Irishman hit the roads on the first pass through Friday’s leg, the virgin sand had already been swept clear by the earlier runners, leaving Meeke with clear rails in which to position his DS3 for maximum grip. Fastest times through five of the day’s eight stages put Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle over half a minute clear of closest chaser Ogier by Friday night. Although the world champion had managed to haul back a handful seconds on the pair of spectator stages that criss-crossed the floodlit streets of Porto on Friday evening, the real damage had already been done.
Spain’s Dani Sordo, normally known for his prowess on asphalt, seemed to take the tricky gravel conditions in his stride and produced a tremendous performance on Friday. The Hyundai i20 pilot finished the day well-placed in third and had even demoted a bogged-down Ogier in the afternoon, only for a front left puncture to hamper his charge. Nevertheless, Sordo remained very much in touching distance, just 5.4sec behind the Frenchman after the opening nine stages.
Andreas Mikkelsen and Sordo’s teammate Thierry Neuville ended day one fourth and fifth respectively. Both reaped rewards for a cautious start to proceedings, an approach that both Ott Tänak and Hyundai number three Hayden Paddon would have done well to adopt.
Both the Estonian and the Kiwi, fresh from his maiden career victory at Rally Argentina, saw their hopes quite literally go up in smoke at the same corner on stage 5. First, Paddon flew off the road 12km into the second pass of Ponte de Lima, rolling and crashing heavily into a wooded area. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were both unhurt and able to make a rapid exit from the wrecked i20 shortly before the car was engulfed by flames and reduced to a smouldering shell within minutes.
Just minutes later, proving that lighting can strike twice, DMACK pilot Ott Tänak overshot the very same bend, sending his Ford Fiesta RS barrel rolling into the undergrowth. Tänak’s car also caught fire but, thankfully for him, help was soon at hand from a group of villagers who, armed with a garden hose, succeeded in extinguishing the flames before any catastrophic damage was done.
Jari-Matti Latvala endured only a slightly better time of it than the pair of retirees. He broke his Polo R’s power steering after hitting a rut on Friday afternoon and dropping more than three minutes sluggishly negotiating the final few tests. The Finn plummeted off the leader board from fourth before eventually recovering to ninth behind M-Sport duo Mads Østberg and Eric Camilli.
If there were any lingering doubts over Meeke’s nerve after an excellent first day, they were unceremoniously blown out of the water as the ADWRC driver whipped up a rally-winning sandstorm on Saturday morning. A barnstorming run through the day’s opening tests secured the Brit three stage wins on the trot and extended his advantage almost over the minute mark.
A brief glance over his shoulder would’ve have revealed a very different story in the Ogier camp. Opening the roads for a second consecutive day, conditions underfoot were beginning to take their toll on the triple world champion. An attempted fightback never materialised as the flagging Frenchman became preoccupied with the looming threat from his own teammate Andreas Mikkelsen.
As leader Meeke adopted a more cautious approach on the afternoon loop, including weighting down his DS3 with a second spare wheel, Mikkelsen capitalised to post two out of three fastest times and overhaul Hyundai’s Sordo. Such was Mikkelsen’s pace, that he found himself within a mere half second of teammate Ogier at one stage, before dropping back slightly to end the day 3.1 seconds adrift.
For his part, Spain’s Sordo blamed his regression on a lack of lack of stability at the rear of his Hyundai i20. He ended proceedings on Saturday over 30 seconds behind the rejuvenated Mikkelsen in fourth but with a full 1min44secs in hand over another man on the rise, Eric Camilli. The M-Sport youngster benefited from a host of mechanical gremlins that blighted fellow Fiesta pilot Mads Østberg’s day. Not one but two broken driveshafts reduced the former Citroën man to front-wheel drive only for much of the day, costing him over three minutes. Another man to plummet off the leader board was Thierry Neuville. His Saturday drive was brought to a premature end in rather more bizarre circumstances as his i20 ran out of fuel on stage 11.
Meeke would not be caught on Sunday’s brief four-stage loop. Expertly managing his considerable advantage , the man who waited so long for his first victory at WRC level negotiated the final few kilometres in Portugal unscathed to claim his second ever winner’s medal in rallying’s premiere series.
Following Meeke home in second, Andreas Mikkelsen picked up where he left off on Sunday morning by blitzing his way to two more stage wins. After closing in for the kill the previous night, he made short work of Ogier’s remaining time advantage to shunt the world champion down a place on the podium. The Frenchman’s cause was not helped by a pair of punctures sustained on Sunday’s opening two stages. With just one spare wheel aboard his Polo R, Ogier was forced to manage his pace but still finished on a high by taking maximum points on the event-closing power stage.
Dani Sordo made it three consecutive fourth place finishes in 2016, showing the sort of consistency that will no doubt please his superiors at Hyundai. Another man with a smile on his face at the final time control was Eric Camilli who overcame a handbrake issue and a spin on the final stage to claim a career-high fifth place. The raft of casualties among the front-runners enabled Jari-Matti Latvala to salvage a reasonable points finish in sixth, 5.3sec adrift of Camilli’s Fiesta.
Meeke’s victory now means that WRC 2016 has opened with four different rally winners from the first five rounds. Refreshingly unpredictable the competition may have been thus far, but the lack of a single dominant force only disguises the identity of the real beneficiary with a third of the season completed. Mikkelsen’s strong showing here promotes him up to second in the overall classification as both Østberg and Paddon stumble.
However, one name remains unmoved. Still yet to finish off the podium and with a least one bonus point to his name on every round this season, it is Sébastien Ogier who sits commandingly atop the 2016 drivers’ standings by a clear 47 points.
Can the Frenchman maintain his unerring consistency as the WRC moves back to the Mediterranean for round 6 at Rally Italia Sardegna? Action on the island gets underway on the 9th June.
Final Results: Round 5 – Rally Portugal
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