Reigning WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier survived a wreckage-strewn Rally Portugal to claim his fourth victory in five years on the Algarve. Over the course of four days of intense competition he successfully held off the stubborn challenge of a rejuvenated Mikko Hirvonen to post Volkswagen’s eighth successive WRC victory, equalling the feat achieved by Citroën’s charges in 2011.
It was a repeat of last year’s result as far as the top two were concerned, with runner-up Hirvonen not only securing M-Sport’s best finish of the season so far but also replicating his second place finish on the same event exactly a year ago. Although the Finn managed to close the gap slightly on Ogier this time round, the imperious Frenchman still romped home with a comfortable 42.3 second margin.
Portugal is a familiar stomping ground for WRC’s finest, taking its place on the calendar for the sixth consecutive season. Much like the previous round in Mexico, this rally is a technically demanding gravel test. It combines fast, open roads with narrow tracks, each coated with a clay-like surface that chews tyres in dry conditions whilst becoming treacherously boggy and slippery in the wet. However, this event is probably best remembered for Jari-Matti Latvala’s gargantuan crash in 2009. The Finn overcooked a bend and plunged nearly 200m down an almost vertical hillside, a stark reminder of the wafer thin the line between perfection and catastrophe in rallying.
After the raft of retirements in Mexico, the teams were hoping for a more gentle start to proceedings in the Algarve. It proved anything but. By the end of the first full day of competition, four of the main players had seen their hopes of victory dashed. Friday was by far Hyundai’s best day at the office so far this season, with the WRC rookies taking a hat-trick of stage wins through Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville. Although the pair found themselves fifth and sixth overall by the end of the day, this represented major progress for the Korean outfit who, up until then, had not registered a single stage win all season.
However, things started in an altogether less positive fashion for the likes of Elfyn Evans, Robert Kubica and Jari-Matti Latvala. The former duo made it no further than stage 4, when the young Welshman missed a breaking point attempting a tight right-hand bend and sent his Fiesta RS in to several barrel rolls, the battered wreckage coming to rest at the bottom of a steep bank. Kubica meanwhile suffered the latest in a long line of ignominious exits just 6km down the road from Evans when he clipped a tree, prising the front right wheel clean off his Fiesta. The Pole’s car span sideways, completely blocking the road ahead and halting the progress of several drivers in the following pack. The stage was eventually cancelled. The next test spelled the end for VW number two Latvala. Running in second, the Finn was sucked in to a hole on the inside of a corner and flipped his Polo R in to a bank on the opposite side of the road. That incident may have lacked the drama of his infamous 2009 mishap but it proved equally as terminal nonetheless.
As the Hyundai’s early form tailed off, and with Latvala out of the picture, Ogier was able to pull ahead on the afternoon loop. However, he was trumped on the final stage by Hirvonen and the mightily impressive Ott Tanak and ended the day in third. There was still time for one more slice of drama before the day was out, as Citroën’s Kris Meeke suffered an almost identical fate to that of his compatriot Evans on the re-run of Almodôvar. Meeke careered off on the very same corner that had previously caught out the Welshman that morning and after rolling several times his crumpled DS3 came to rest just metres away from the abandoned hulk of Evans’ Fiesta.
Overnight leader Hirvonen could only hold top spot for a single stage before Ogier turned on the afterburners and usurped both the Finn and Tanak to re-take the lead by stage 9. The world champion crucially had soft tyres to spare for the afternoon loop and accordingly rattled off three straight stage wins to put daylight between him and the chasing pack. M-Sport’s Hirvonen had opted to begin the rally on softs, so by day two his pre-worn rubber was being tested to the limit. He miraculously avoided the constant threat of punctures and ended the day 38.1 seconds adrift of the Frenchman.
It was a different story for Tanak however, whose rally came to an end when he rolled out from third at the scene of Latvala’s monster accident five years ago. The Estonian’s Fiesta finished up sprawled across the road meaning, for the second time in the rally, a stage had to be cancelled. Mads Østberg was the chief beneficiary, moving up in to the podium places.
A new day brought with it an all too familiar story for the hapless Robert Kubica. This time the 29 year-old managed to burn out his clutch after attempting to recover the car from a ditch which had caught him out on stage 9. With ten retirements already clocked-up from only four rallies so far this season, M-Sport bosses may be beginning to question their decision to award the Pole a full-time seat this year. Of course, comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn with fellow F1 star Kimi Raikkonen’s brief and ill-fated stint in WRC. However, considering Kubica’s years of previous rallying experience, not to mention last year’s WRC 2 title to his name, it is fair to say that the man from Krakow is falling consistently below the standards expected of him at this moment in time.
Hyundai failed to repeat day one’s achievements, with Juho Hänninen plagued by a raft of punctures throughout the rally and Thierry Neuville shedding 5 minutes and tumbling to ninth when he broke the rear suspension on his i20 on stage 12. Teammate Dani Sordo survived unscathed to trail Østberg by 20 seconds heading in to the final day.
With the legwork done, Ogier eased his way through Sunday’s three short stages without any dramas, collecting three bonus points on the event-closing power stage to wrap up the perfect weekend. Hirvonen was equally as safe in second whilst any threat to Østberg’s podium spot was all but nullified on Sunday morning when closest challenger Sordo retired with a broken driveshaft before stage 12. Andreas Mikkelsen clinched fourth for VW after a consistent, if unspectacular drive.
Latvala’s failure to score heavily in Portugal means that this victory represents a major step in Sébastien Ogier’s title defence. He now commands a 29 point lead over his teammate in the championship standings, meaning that, no matter what happens, he will still lead the way after round 5 when the action moves back across the Atlantic to Argentina on 8th of May.