Kalle Rovanperä has won Rally of Portugal, his first victory of the 2023 World Rally Championship season, after a dominant drive for Toyota.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi rounded out the podium as title rivals Ott Tänak, and an ailing Thierry Neuville, came home fourth and fifth.
Rovanperä’s victory, plus first on the powerstage, earns the reigning world champion a 17-point lead over Tänak in the title race, while Hyundai reduced Toyota’s advantage in the manufacturers’ championship.
Elfyn Evans led the championship and therefore started Portugal’s first leg as first car on the road, but his weekend quickly turned into a nightmare as, when running sixth, he crashed out at high speed on Friday’s penultimate stage and wouldn’t restart the event.
That handed his rivals an opportunity, and Rovanperä was only too happy to seize it.
Performing impeccably on the first day to climb into the lead in the afternoon – despite running second on the road – the 22-year-old was simply sensational on Saturday as he secured five stage wins from seven to lead the rally by almost a minute.
From there he was able to reach for cruise control and record his first victory as world champion by 54.7 seconds.
“It has been too long coming but yeah finally we are back,” said Rovanperä. “I have to say big thank you to Jonne to the team, they have been pushing all the time well.
“I also have to say a big thank you to my friend, I have had a difficult time personally since last year and he has helped me and pushed me.”
Sordo’s second place equals his best ever result in Portugal – a well-earned position following a strong drive all weekend long.
Winning three stages, he briefly led on Friday – the first time he’s led a WRC rally in a Rally1 car – and resisted growing pressure from his two team-mates behind.
Sordo eventually beat third-placed Lappi – who arrived to the end of the powerstage with smoke coming out the back of his Hyundai – by 25.6s.
“I want to say thanks to Craig [Breen] because he was with me all the rally, and for sure he pushed me to the limits,” said Sordo, who was wearing a tribute helmet to Breen in Portugal.
“I want to give this to his mom and dad. Like Craig said to me in Sweden, I called him and he said ‘now you have the pressure because I am fast.’
“Well Craig now you have the pressure because I am back.”
Heading into Sunday it was expected that both Sordo and Lappi would be asked to move aside for Hyundai’s number one driver Neuville, but any such plans were soon kiboshed by a suspected turbo problem that severely affected Neuville’s pace.
From as early as the day’s first stage, the Belgian was forced into limp mode and instead of focusing on climbing from third to second, he lost position to M-Sport’s Tänak.
However Neuville was able to do enough to guide his i20 N Rally1 home in fifth place.
“That’s obviously what rallying is all about, ups and downs. A weekend to forget, so let’s see in Sardinia,” Neuville said.
Fourth was a disappointing result for Tänak, who had led the rally on Friday morning.
But when his front-right tire came off the rim on the rally’s fourth stage, Tänak’s weekend began to unravel as he then struggled to find comfort, and performance, from his Puma Rally1.
A broken hybrid unit on Sunday just compounded his woe, but he was at least able to recover four points from the powerstage.
“It was challenging for sure,” Tänak said.
We have some great weaknesses at the moment which we need to sort. Second loop and these rough conditions are not really working for us.
“I hand it over to the engineers to get it sorted. I managed my toughness so it’s up to them now.”
Just five of the eight Rally1 cars made it home in the points.
Evans’s Toyota was the second to retire on Friday as Takamoto Katsuta, registered for Toyota manufacturer points for just the second time, was forced out in the morning with a broken radiator. He had been running equal fourth overall at that point with eventual rally winner Rovanperä.
Katsuta did however restart to claim some consolation points for Toyota but finished behind M-Sport Ford’s Pierre-Louis Loubet – who had targeted a maiden WRC podium on this event.
Initially Loubet was exceeding that target as he won the opening stage to lead the rally, but a suspected exhaust fire hampered him towards the end of the morning.
However he was firmly in the fight for the podium on Saturday before, in a narrow section of the daunting Amarante stage, he nibbled the inside of a left-hander and broke his steering against a tree stump – forcing him out for the day.
That attrition meant the bottom half of the top 10 was filled with WRC2 drivers in Rally2 cars.
Oliver Solberg had looked set for victory, judging his pace to perfection on the opening day to pull clear while rivals Gus Greensmith, Andreas Mikkelsen, Adrien Fourmaux and Teemu Suninen all punctured.
A hairy spin on Saturday morning aside, Solberg kept his nose clean on Saturday but undid all his hard work at the very end of the day when he performed donuts for the crowd between the flying finish and stop control of the Lousada superspecial stage.
That was against event regulations and he was handed a one-minute time penalty, which dropped him 24.6s behind Greensmith.
But Solberg was then handed an opportunity as Greensmith encountered power-steering issues on Sunday’s second stage, restricting his pace.
In a grandstand finish Greensmith held just an 8.7s lead onto the Fafe powerstage, and Solberg gave it his absolute all to grab the win.
“It’s been a great weekend really – really consistent, good speed again and yeah… I hope I can win because second place is not really worth it right now,” Solberg said, before knowing Greensmith’s stage time.
“It’s really a shame with everything that happened but that’s how it is.”
Greensmith however just about held on, taking victory by a scant 1.2s.
The frustration was obvious from Solberg who punched his Fabia, while the delight – and relief – for Greensmith similarly clear.
“F****** hell, that’s a bit close!” said the winner.
Mikkelsen, on his first WRC event of the season, completed the WRC2 podium ahead of outgoing championship leader Yohan Rossel who showed impressive speed on Friday but suffered issues with his Citroën thereafter.
Suninen finished fifth in class and 10th overall.
Kris Meeke retired on the opening day with a damper problem.