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WRC Rally Portugal

WRC Portugal: The Good, The Bad and Rovanpera's return to form

Portugal's tough gravel stages kicked off a series of seven consecutive gravel World Rally Championship events. After a quiet start to 2023, Kalle Rovanpera burst back onto the scene to kickstart his title defence in dominant fashion. Autosport reviews the highs, lows, turning points and close calls

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

Top Performer - Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen

While Kalle Rovanpera refused to call his Rally Portugal performance the best of his career to date, it should rank among the finest. On Portugal’s mix of rough and fast gravel stages, Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen rekindled the magic that saw them dominate the 2022 season.

Portugal has become renowned for its rough, puncture-inducing roads, but it was no problem for the world champion. Rovanpera produced a faultless and stunning drive to dominate the event, winning by 54.7s from Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.

Ten wins from 19 stages, and going 12.8s faster than anyone else on stage nine, underlined his speed. But the manner of the victory, starting from second on the road, mustn’t be forgotten in this performance.

It seems absurd that the Finn had been absent from the WRC podium since finishing second at the January season opener in Monte Carlo. An even more remarkable statistic is that last weekend’s win was his first for seven months, since he became the youngest ever champion after winning Rally New Zealand last October.

Rovanpera’s mesmerising drives raised the bar last year, creating an expectations of him. However, this year the game has changed. Toyota’s car advantage is not what it once was, as Hyundai has made developments while Ott Tanak has now given M-Sport a lift.

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

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

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Road position and misfortune have hampered Rovanpera at times this year, but there have been several flashes of the 2022 magic. The Finn also admitted he had been having "a hard time personally" since the end of last year, which if anything increases the magnitude of this victory.

Asked if it was a relief to win, he said: "Yeah, it has been a bit too long coming. But I knew when we got a clean weekend and a good drive we would be back in the game.

"Everything was like it should be with the car, so we were back on the game and pushing on. You always miss the feeling when you are not there, and it is nice to be back."

Hyundai’s Dani Sordo put the performance into perfect context saying: "You feel like you're driving an R5 car, in a different category," when asked for his thoughts upon seeing Rovanpera’s times.

Honourable mentions: Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera, Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson and Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson

Portugal has proven to be a happy hunting ground for Hyundai’s Dani Sordo, who had scored six podiums on its stages prior to last weekend. It came as no surprise that the Spaniard was a podium contender. Sordo, who turned 40 leading into the weekend, delivered his best performance behind the wheel of a Rally1 car to date to finish second, scoring three stage wins. Although benefiting from a strong road position, Sordo was the fastest Hyundai driver through the majority of the rally.

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1 with the team to remember Craig Breen

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1 with the team to remember Craig Breen

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Sordo added even more class to his drive by wearing a special tribute crash helmet to honour his late team-mate Craig Breen, with whom he shared the third i20 N this season. He then dedicated the podium to Breen.

 

Toksport Skoda’s Gus Greensmith came through to take a second victory of the season in WRC2 after an eventful rally that included having to make on the road repairs with ratchet straps to stem a water leak, punctures and a power steering issue.

Greensmith’s victory hopes were boosted when long time leader Oliver Solberg was handed a one-minute penalty for performing illegal doughnuts at the Lousada super special stage, which resulted in a 35.4s deficit turning into a 24.6s advantage. However, a power steering issue struck on the final day, which required a Herculean effort to take the win by just 1.2s from a fired-up Solberg.

"The last 24 hours have been stressful," said Greensmith. "On the second stage of the final loop the steering became very heavy and on the second corner it locked and we were in the bank. From that point onwards we had assistance, but then at certain points it would stop.

"The long stage was one of the most banzai stages I have ever done. I had some huge moments in there, and then to win by 1.2s... It has been a weekend and a half. I won’t forget about this for a long time."

Gus Greensmith, Jonas Andersson, Skoda Fabia RS Rally2

Gus Greensmith, Jonas Andersson, Skoda Fabia RS Rally2

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

While Greensmith took the spoils, Solberg deserves huge credit for his display, having avoided trouble to comfortably lead the class until the penalty labelled “harsh” and “unpopular” by Greensmith.

"I had a great feeling and except for the doughnuts I think everything went really well," said Solberg. "I had to try on that last stage. I gave it a go.

"The sport can be so much more and so much bigger for fans and that is what I believe. I just do what I enjoy in life and I try to bring joy to other people. I got that inspiration from Ken [Block]. I don’t regret anything I did, but clearly it was a mistake."

 

Team of the Week: Toksport Skoda

On a weekend where Toyota, M-Sport-Ford and Hyundai all encountered issues, Toksport delivered a clean sweep of the WRC2 podium for the second time this season.

The Skoda squad has once again emerged as the team to beat in the second-tier class, with Greensmith taking the win from Solberg while 2021 WRC2 champion Andreas Mikkelsen came through to finish third on his category return.


The feat was perhaps made even more impressive with the WRC2 class featuring a staggering 44 entries including a host of former WRC drivers including five-time WRC rally winner Kris Meeke (Hyundai Team Portugal) Adrien Fourmaux (M-Sport), Teemu Suninen (Hyundai) and championship leader Yohan Rossel (Citroen).

Moments of Heartbreak

M-Sport’s Ott Tanak looked mightily impressive on Friday despite the challenges brought by his elevated road position. A win on stage two gave him the rally lead, but his hopes of a podium unravelled when his front right tyre came off the rim during stage four. After wrestling his Ford Puma, which he described as "a wooden horse", and battling a lack of hybrid power at times he salvaged fourth and four valuable bonus points from the Power Stage.

 

Likewise, team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet let a chance for a podium slip when he brushed a bank on stage 10. This damaged his steering, putting him out of fifth when 8.4s shy of third spot. The crash came after a fire on stage four, caused by his Puma’s exhaust being out of alignment, which required some “precision kicking” from mechanics to fix.

 

After a super consistent 2022, Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta has endured a difficult start to 2023. Things took another twist in Portugal, though the trouble was beyond his control this time. A rare alternator failure put him out of the fight after two stages.

With a podium seemingly on the cards and a potential upgrade to second in the offing through team orders, Neuville’s championship hopes took a hit when a turbo issue believed to have stemmed from a human error forced the Belgian to trundle home in fifth.

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Elfyn Evans, Scott Martin, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Lucky Escapes

Toyota’s Elfyn Evans and co-driver Scott Martin can count themselves extremely fortunate to have emerged unscathed from a huge crash on stage seven after running wide at a fast left hander.

"We are both perfectly fine," said Evans, who retired from sixth having lost time across Friday to road cleaning. "We had a few checks, which took some time, but it all turned out well.

"The car did its job really well. It was a really fast part of the stage and there were a couple of left-handers together. I probably carried a bit more speed around the second one and there was some sand. I just slid ever so slightly wide into the bank and that pitched the car into quite an aggressive roll."

 

Top Tweets

Toyota boss Jari-Matti Latvala showed that he has the skills for a future career in the media.

 

Here is Oliver Solberg providing a costly show for the thousands of fans at Lousada.

 

The old school side-by-side super special proved a real hit with fans.

 

Kalle Rovanpera was back to doing Kalle Rovanpera things.

 

Hot Shots

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Romain Thuillier / Hyundai Motorsport

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Dani Sordo, Candido Carrera, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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