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WRC Portugal: Rovanpera, Ogier split by a second, Evans suffers pacenote issue

Kalle Rovanpera will take a one-second Rally Portugal lead over Toyota World Rally Championship team-mate Sebastien Ogier into Saturday, while title contender Elfyn Evans hit trouble.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Reigning world champion Rovanpera snatched the rally lead on stage six, but the margin never grew larger than a second as the part-time driver battled with a GR Yaris that wasn’t too his liking.

The Finn, who ended Friday morning in third, held onto the lead despite a late attack from Ogier, who shot from fourth to second on the day’s final stage.     

The battle at the front proved incredibly tight with 5.4s covering the top four. Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta ended the day in third [+4.7s] after leading at the midday tyre fitting zone and sitting second until the final stage. Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, who was fighting his i20N all day, ran as high as third before dropping to fourth.   

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo claimed three stage wins on his return to the WRC since to sit fifth [+17.9s], 0.2s ahead of team-mate and a championship leader Thierry Neuville. Faced with the disadvantage of being first on the road, overnight leader Neuville limited the damage be ending the morning in a fine second, before dropping to sixth [+18.1s] after the afternoon loop.

M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux drove smartly to remain in seventh [+31.8s], ahead of Evans [+1m43.2s] who lost time to a puncture on stage seven, while his co-driver Scott Martin was without his pacenote book. Gregoire Munster [2m27.3s] completed the Rally1 field after a trouble-free run. The top 10 was rounded out by WRC2 class leader Oliver Solberg, who edged Yohan Rossel by 7.3s.        

Katsuta's morning lead going into the afternoon was short-lived. The Japanese lost the advantage by the smallest of margins after the afternoon’s first test [Stage 6, Lousa, 12.28km]. 

The second pass of Lousa presented a much drier and abrasive surface providing much more of a challenge.

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

It was Ogier who set the pace after benefitting from some setup changes made at the midday tyre fitting zone. The five-time Portugal winner managed to set a time 1.1s faster than team-mate Rovanpera with Sordo, third, 2.2s in arrears. The effort was enough to push Ogier from fifth to third overall.

“The tyre is helping but we made some little changes,” said Ogier, who gambled on taking only one spare wheel. “I feel a bit better now but we’ve had better days. No risk, no fun.”

The stage provided even better news for Rovanpera as he leapt into the rally lead by 0.1s from Katsuta, who dropped 4.5s.

Rovanpera revealed he was still fighting his car which was “still not 100%” especially on the rough places.”

Neuville also surrendered second, dropping to fifth overall after losing 5.4s. Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe appeared to have an issue with their timecard at the end of the stage, before it was swiftly resolved.

Title rival Evans endured a continuation of his setup issues from the morning. The Welshman ceded 10.9s, while a mere 6.9s covered the top six overall.

Evans’ difficult start to the rally was magnified by two issues on stage 7 [Gois, 14.30km]. Co-driver Scott Martin had to deliver pacenotes from a mobile phone having left his pacenote book on a table at the stage six, time control. Martin unusually got out of the car to head to the time control after the timecard delay for Neuville in front. To make matters worse, a front right wheel came off the rim which contributed to a 52.6s time loss that cut them adrift of the top seven overall.

The stage was won by Sordo, his third fastest time of the day to move into fifth overall ahead of team-mate Neuville, who was 4.9s slower than his Spanish team-mate.

Rovanpera was third fastest on the test a tenth faster than Katsuta, which resulted in the former doubling his overall lead to 0.2s over his Toyota team-mate.

“It’s tough, we are definitely nowhere near where the car should be,” said a frustrated Rovanpera. “I am fighting all the time, we have understeer and everything so it is making tyre wear worse and worse.”

The gap between the top six continued to narrow as 6.3s while Fourmaux drifted away from the field, 19.3s behind in seventh.

The battle for the victory took another twist on the day’s penultimate stage [Arganil, 18.72km]. Despite wrestling his car, Rovanpera managed to claim his first stage win of the event to date, pipping Tanak, also battling his Hyundai, by 0.1s.

“I tried so hard, it’s not nice. I need to try hard but altogether it’s not working,” said Tanak, who climbed to third overall after Ogier lost 2.4s, having been hampered by a hybrid issue at the start of the stage.

Rovanpera was only able to extend his rally lead to 1.0s over Katsuta thanks to a fine effort from the Japanese to reach the stage end, 0.8s adrift. It was another stage defined by tight margins as 6.6s split the top seven across the 18.72km stage.

Evans and Martin valiantly battled on with the latter using his back up pacenotes with the damage only a 14.7s time loss.

“We couldn’t write the day really, nothing is going our way,” said Evans.

The final stage provided another shake up to the leaderboard caused by a charging Ogier. The Frenchman, keen to secure a better road position for Saturday, set a blistering pace to win the test by 3.2s from Rovanpera.

The effort hauled Ogier ahead of Katsuta and Tanak to second overall, one second behind leader Rovanpera.   

Nine stages are scheduled for Saturday’s leg, comprising 145.02 kilometres. 

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