Elfyn Evans stamped his authority on the lead of Rally Portugal, beating Kalle Rovanperä by 8.6 seconds on the longest stage of the event, Amarante.
At 23.13 miles, Amarante presented the best opportunity of the rally for one of Toyota’s leading duo to make a break for the win.
Rovanperä had feared that running a pair of used tires from Friday would come back to haunt him on the Saturday morning loop, and so it transpired.
He’d expressed the same doubt on the previous test, Cabeceiras de Basto, yet gone fastest. Evans had conceded he’d not pushed hard enough.
There would be no repeat of that mistake on Amarante – a stage win boosted his lead to 18.4s heading to midday service.
“[It’s] so impossible to know if you’re doing well or not. You kind of have to trust your rhythm to a point,” said Evans. The first smile on his face at a stage end after a tough loop of stages was a telltale sign he’d got it right this time,
Toyota already looked to have a 1-2 finish under lock and key with its lead pair sprinting away. But after spending the morning eating into Dani Sordo’s advantage, Takamoto Katsuta finally ascended to the final podium position on Amarante to make it an all-Yaris top three.
An alternate tire strategy did the trick for Katsuta, bolting a set of hands onto the front and leaving softs on the rear, while Sordo again struggled for grip despite having softs all round.
Katsuta gained 5.2s on Sordo across the longest stage of the rally to nick third place. Despite losing a podium position Sordo showed no disappointment, instead choosing to praise the Toyota junior driver’s efforts.
“Taka was driving really well. He’s doing amazing stages. I’m happy for him, he deserves it,” said Sordo.
Any hopes Pierre-Louis Loubet may have had to catch Thierry Neuville for fifth seem to have disappeared, as the “wrong tire choice” left him with “no traction”.
Neuville, who was running a set of crossed hards and softs on Amarante, gained 22.4s over the lead Ford Puma to build his advantage over Loubet up to a healthy 43.8s.
There was further woe for M-Sport as Adrien Fourmaux stopped to change a left-rear puncture, dropping three minutes and falling behind Ott Tänak to 10th.
This triggered a knock-on effect for Craig Breen, who started Amarante four minutes behind his team-mate. With Fourmaux spending half of the stage running only a minute ahead, Breen struggled to see in the hanging dust and dropped 2.6s to Loubet.
Gus Greensmith was poised to take advantage, starting Amarante only 6.7s behind Breen. But stuck using hard tires, he also complained of a lack of grip, only gaining 0.3s on Breen at the end of what he called a “bit of a disaster morning.”
Despite dropping down a bank and getting stuck on Cabeceiras de Basto, Sébastien Ogier has somehow soldiered on towards midday service.
Toyota’s reigning world champion was able to escape the previous stage without going over the maximum time limit so set off into Amarante, though suffered a small fire on the rear-right corner of his GR Yaris at the start control.
Ogier then pulled over after a few meters to allow the remaining Rally1 cars through without kicking up dust and proceeded to drive slowly through the stage.
Teemu Suninen continues to lead the WRC2 support class but is coming under increased pressure from Yohan Rossel’s Citroën C3 Rally2, with the lead gap down to 9.2s.
Hyundai Motorsport’s WRC2 team leader had inherited the top spot after Andreas Mikkelsen retired after Friday’s stages with engine trouble.
Suninen’s lead initially grew with a stage win on Vieira do Minho but has slid backwards since, especially with Rossel winning Amarante by 7.7s.
Oliver Solberg retains the final podium position, almost a minute off the lead, with a comfortable 45.2s gap to Kajetan Kajetanowicz behind.
Chris Ingram picked his way up to the top five on Saturday morning, as fellow Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo runner Miko Marczyk struggled for pace throughout the loop.
- Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 25m02.3s
- Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +4.6s
- Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +8.2s
- Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +13.4s
- Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +13.6s
- Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +18.6s
- Pierre-Louis Loubet/Landais (M-Sport Ford) +36.0s
- Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +38.3s
- Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +38.6s
- Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +3m11.8s
Leading Positions after SS12
- Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 2h17m55.00s
- Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +18.4s
- Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota) +1m19.9s
- Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai) +1m23.4s
- Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +2m19.1s
- Pierre-Louis Loubet/Landais (M-Sport Ford) +3m02.9s
- Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford) +3m12.6s
- Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (M-Sport Ford) +3m19.00s
- Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +4m06.4s
- Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (M-Sport Ford) +6m01.2s