Elfyn Evans has claimed his first victory of the 2021 World Rally Championship season with a controlled drive on Rally Portugal, with Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and Toyota team-mate Sébastien Ogier completing the podium.
Evans headed into the final day with a 10.7-second lead over Sordo and duly won three of the day’s five tests to score a 28.3s victory, with Ogier 1m23.6s behind. His victory makes him the sixth different winner of the last six editions of the rally.
However, by going fifth-fastest on the powerstage while Ogier was third, it’s the latter who leads the championship by two points and will lead the crews away in Sardinia.
Neither Thierry Neuville nor Ott Tänak completed the full rally and were restricted to picking up powerstage points only. Tänak – who carried no spare tire and even switched to a lighter, open-face crash helmet on Sunday for his powerstage assault – got the better of Neuville by 1.6s to claim all five bonus points.
However Neuville and Tänak, third and fourth in the standings, now trail championship leader Ogier by 22 and 34 points respectively.
Toyota also took another decisive haul of points from Hyundai in Portugal and stretches its lead in the manufacturers standings in the process courtesy of claiming a 1-2-4 finish on an event where Hyundai had initially looked quickest.
Indeed, on the first leg it was the i20 Coupe WRCs that bossed proceedings, as Tänak then Sordo led the way, making use of his favorable position in the starting order.
Despite running second on the road, Neuville impressed to run third and within 10s of his two team-mates before an optimistic pacenote resulted in him crashing his i20 WRC into a bank and rolling over before spectators helped right it. Neuville limped to the stage-end and tried to execute some running repairs but these immediately broke and he was forced out.
Tänak took the lead from Sordo on this same stage as Sordo struggled with what he called a “weird” tire issue and an engine that struggled to re-fire when stalled. That elevated Evans up to second spot while Ogier, who had been an anonymous player up to that point, vaulted up to fifth due to the attrition.
Evans trailed Tänak by just six seconds at the start of Saturday but Tänak was flawless, pulling over 20s clear of the Yaris and surpassing the 250-stage win mark until he too ran into suspension trouble. The damage appeared incredibly similar to Neuville’s although Tänak didn’t hit anything with force to cause the breakage. The end result was the same: he retired.
“It was kind of good feeling to be back on the pace yesterday, haven’t been feeling since one-and-a-half years,” Tänak said at the end of the rally.
“It’s almost there, but it seems like we have to wait for another time.”
Tänak’s disappointment meant Evans assumed a lead that he wouldn’t relinquish, despite a spirited run from Sordo on Saturday’s street stage.
The battle was defused on Sunday’s opener when Evans went some 9.6s faster than his Hyundai rival and he duly beat him on all four of the day’s remaining tests to secure the fourth victory of his WRC career.
Second for Sordo though did gift Borja Rozada his first ever world championship podium on his first event co-driving for Sordo.
“It feels good,” rally winner Evans said. “We weren’t maybe the fastest crew this weekend but still we had really good pace, kept out of trouble and did enough to keep Dani behind today.
“It feels good, it comes at a good time, I’m happy to take this one.”
Ogier was in a tough scrap with Toyota junior Katsuta but when the Japanese backed off on Sunday, the seven-time champion was clear to grab his third podium from four starts this season.
“You cannot expect any better,” he said. “It hasn’t been a very pleasant weekend for us but on the points side it was OK.”
Leading the championship was an unwelcome gift though: “The season is very long so for sure nobody wants to open the road in Sardinia,” he added.
Katsuta’s fourth place was well-earned however as he stuck with Ogier on pure pace throughout Saturday. The result is Katsuta is now just five points behind fifth-placed Kalle Rovanperä in the championship.
Having finished sixth on each of the three previous rounds, fourth marked Katsuta’s best ever WRC result, finishing over two minutes clear of the two M-Sport cars which came home fifth and sixth.
Portugal was an incredibly positive event for the team’s full-time WRC driver Gus Greensmith, who stunned on the opening stage to go joint third fastest with Neuville, 0.5s adrift of the lead.
It was a run of form that would persist throughout the weekend as he scored five further top-three stage times from the 20 tests, but the end result was lacking; first because of a puncture on Friday morning and then because of an intermittent throttle problem on Saturday – something that had affected him on the pre-event shakedown stage too.
The buoyant Briton eventually finished 10.7s clear of his team-mate Adrien Fourmaux who, while not quite as startling as in Croatia, put together another strong rally – a dramatic spin and puncture on SS7 aside – that included a couple of second-fastest stage times to net sixth on his first gravel event in the top class.
Rovanperä’s weekend was a bit of a mystery as the 20-year-old failed to feature in the fight at the front.
The highlight was undoubtedly winning SS4, but Rovanperä was regularly the slowest of the four Toyota cars and spent much of the rally in a lonely sixth overall before retiring two stages from the end of Saturday.
He was on route to SS14 Amarante before driving back to service instead with a technical issue neither the team nor Rovanperä has since elaborated on.
“I don’t have anything good to say about this weekend for sure,” a dejected Rovanperä said at the end of the rally.
“I was driving always on the first loop like my grandma – well not my grandma, some other grandma as my grandma would be faster.
“We need to really get our head together and get fast again.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet had an even more disastrous rally alongside new co-driver Florian Haut-Labourdette though. The 2C Competition Hyundai crew were comfortably slowest of the World Rally Cars on SS1 before crashing off the road on the next test and failing to restart under SuperRally rules thereafter.
This high attrition rate elevated the battle for WRC2 honors into the bottom half of the overall top 10, and it was Arctic Rally Finland winner Esapekka Lappi that took the spoils in Portugal too in seventh place with his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
His winning margin of 1m42.8s suggested an easy victory for Lappi but it was anything but as he faced competition from M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen, Citroën’s Mads Østberg, Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg and his own Movisport team-mate Nikolay Gryazin. After Friday, Lappi and Suninen sensationally shared the overall lead with Gryazin just 2.2s in arrears.
But Lappi was both quick and consistent throughout the entire rally and gradually stretched clear, immune to the perils of the Portuguese stages while others encountered problems.
Østberg punctured on SS3, Suninen suffered the same fate on Saturday (albeit a slow puncture) before spinning on Sunday morning while Gryazin – who was the early leader – encountered a turbo problem on Saturday which seriously blighted his pace.
Østberg repelled Gryazin’s advances on Sunday though to claim third behind the two Finns; completing a strong comeback to claim ninth overall too with Gryazin in 10th. Solberg was 11th, and fifth in WRC2 on his first category start and first visit to Portugal.
In the absence of Andreas Mikkelsen due to a positive COVID-19 test, Lappi became the first driver other than the Norwegian to win a WRC2 powerstage to compliment his victory.
“It was really a strong rally from us also our team did an amazing job, we didn’t have any problems with the car,” Lappi said. “In such a rough rally like this it’s really cool, very impressive. I’m very satisfied.”
Asked when he’d be back in the WRC, Lappi took a long pause and said: “I don’t know. We need to think about it.”
The closest class finish of Rally Portugal was in WRC3, where Rally Croatia winner Kajetan Kajetanowicz edged Monte Carlo Rally victor Yohan Rossel by a slender 5.6s.
The pair were close all weekend although Kajetanowicz, a triple European Rally Champion, had the pace advantage. His Škoda was over 20s clear at one point only for a spin to peg him back.
But Kajetanowicz duly repassed Rossel on Sunday to record his second victory in succession. Another ERC Champion, Chris Ingram, took third – his first podium in WRC3.
Soccer manager André Villas-Boas made it to the end of his first ever WRC event – just the second rally of his life – in his Citroën C3 Rally2, finishing 12th in class and 33rd overall.
Junior WRC honors went the way of Mārtiņš Sesks who rose above the rest when others hit problems.
Croatia winner Jon Armstrong was looking ominously dominant, carving open a lead of close to 40s on Friday before a puncture robbed him of four minutes, hampered by his Fiesta Rally4 falling off its jack mid-tire change. Armstrong would then retire for good on Saturday with a terminal engine failure.
Sami Pajari profited from Armstrong’s misfortune but suffered problems of his own on Saturday with a power steering issue making it difficult for him to wrestle his M-Sport Ford.
He did however salvage second with Robert Virves in third, the only other one of the eight crews to not retire or need SuperRally. The Estonian did however finish over 11 minutes behind Sesks.
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 6m27.225s
2 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.674s
3 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +5.394s
4 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Haltunnen (Toyota) +6.937s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +10.618s
6 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +11.172s
Final positions after SS20
1 Evans/Martin 3h38m26.2s
2 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +28.3s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m23.6s
4 Katsuta/Barritt +2m28.4s
5 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +4m52.7s
6 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +5m03.4s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Volkswagen) +9m37.2s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +11m20.0s
9 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +12m01.5s
10 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Volkswagen) +12m35.8s
1 Ogier 79 2 Evans 77 3 Neuville 57 4 Tänak 45 5 Rovanperä 41 6 Katsuta 36 7 Sordo 29 8 Craig Breen 24 9 Greensmith 22 10 Fourmaux 20
1 Toyota 183 2 Hyundai 146 3 M-Sport 64 4 Hyundai 2C Competition 28