22 May 2017 -Rally Portugal was won by M-Sport driver Sébastien Ogier to extend his championship lead, after a dramatic rally that was packed with incidents.
The Frenchman, who scored his maiden WRC win in Portugal seven years ago, took the lead of the four-day dirt road encounter on Saturday morning in his Ford Fiesta. Holding a comfortable advantage, he eased through the final leg to add to his season-opening win in Monte-Carlo. It was his fifth win in Portugal matching the tally of legendary Finn Markku Alén and his 40th career success.
Remarkably, Ogier was one of seven different drivers to lead this sixth round of the season. Thierry Neuville was another. The Belgian topped the standings in his Hyundai i20 Coupe after Thursday night’s opening speed test but slipped away before recovering to second.
Neuville, targeting a hat-trick after victories in Corsica and Argentina, changed his driving style in a bid to regain top spot but conceded defeat early on Sunday morning. Despite finishing 15.6 seconds adrift, he moved up to second in the title battle, 22 points behind Ogier.
Team-mate Dani Sordo finished a further 46.1seconds behind in third. The Spaniard struggled with the handling of his i20 on the dusty gravel roads and could not fend off Ogier and Neuville after lying second earlier in the weekend.
Ott Tänak looked to be the man to beat on Saturday. He led before swiping a bank and breaking his Fiesta’s suspension and brakes. He recovered to finish fourth, almost half a minute adrift of Sordo.
After another of the early leaders Kris Meeke damaged the suspension on his sister car, Craig Breen was again the leading Citroën C3 driver in fifth, the fourth occasion in six rallies he has occupied that position. He was 27.2sec adrift of Tänak but well over a minute clear of Elfyn Evans’ Fiesta.
Juho Hänninen netted seventh in a Toyota Yaris ahead of Mads Østberg and the similar Yaris of Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala returned to the fray on Sunday after spending last night in hospital for rehydration after fighting a severe stomach upset.
The victorious Ogier, however, wasn’t the only title winner in Portugal. Two-time world champion Carlos Sainz has competed in Portugal 14 times, winning twice in 1991 and 1995. This time, Carlos saw it from a different perspective, as guest reporter for Red Bull TV. Afterwards, he took some time out to tell us about his experiences…
“It was interesting to be on the other side for once! It’s always special to come back to visit the rally family that will always be part of my life; to understand a little bit more about the new cars, the events as they are now, and really get under the skin of what is going on these days. I saw a lot of old friends: including my former co-driver Luis Moya of course, with whom I took a very special drive in Fafe for the programme.
“Some drivers say that they don’t like visiting rallies or commentating on TV, as they would rather be driving, but I’m happy to watch. My career is still going though, in rally raid, so that definitely makes it easier to be a spectator!
“This was the first time I got to see the new 2017 cars in action. I really like the new formula, as more power is a direction I always argued in favour of recently: in the later years of my career, I always felt that the cars could do with it. Now they are looking good and performing well, so I think it was a very good move.
“I also think that the cars seem very equal. Of the drivers, Sebastien Ogier was really impressive. He read the rally extremely well: starting the first day opening the road was a real handicap that he managed very effectively. Hyundai is showing good potential too. Probably Citroen needs to work a little bit more on their gravel suspension and the Toyota also needs a bit more work, although it’s clear that they are already very quick after a break of 17 years.
“With the cars being faster they are more challenging to drive, so you can see who handles this difficulty best. But it’s a little bit strange from my side to see mistakes from so many drivers. Hitting things here and there, and also going off the road. That was one of the things that struck me most when I was watching.
“I know that some drivers said the conditions were rough this year, but I didn’t always agree. Portugal used to be incredibly rough in the past; some stages were like the Acropolis Rally in Greece, or worse, and the roads often fell apart. I’m sure that this time the drivers also found the roads rutted with rocks coming out on the second run through the stages, but this is just the nature of Rally Portugal.
‘However, you have to balance all that with the fact that modern suspension is working very well now, which is maybe the biggest change compared to the cars when I started driving at the end of the 1980s. As a result, now the cars are running extremely low even in these conditions: this means that it’s easy to break the sump guard or the suspension. Now it’s always a compromise between looking after the car and seeing how low you can go to improve performance.
‘I hope the viewers appreciated what I was able to say during the programme. I just tried to read what was going on as it happened and call everything as I honestly saw it. This kind of live presenting was a new experience for me but I enjoyed the challenge.
“And the fact that now you can watch rallying live online is obviously one of the biggest changes in the sport compared to when I started. I think this is fantastic for the promotion of the sport, for people to see for themselves what is going on, in real time, wherever they are. Who would have imagined a few years ago that you could watch a rally just on your phone or your iPad? It’s not only on the cars where rally technology has really grown…
“So, I could see that the sport I love is really moving in the right way. It’s important to have spectacular cars, an equal field, a close fight, and good drivers, who are challenging each other rather than dominating. But we need to attract more manufacturers.
“Having finished my TV adventure, I’m going to concentrate on the Dakar Rally now with Peugeot, which is my next challenge. The idea is to do that again next year – my 11th time there, the ninth in South America – and of course my aim as always is to try and win it.”
Catch all the highlights of Rally Portugal to listen to Sainz’s thoughts on this year’s WRC on Red Bull TV. All the programmes from Rally Portugal are available on demand, meaning you can catch up with the WRC action whenever suits you.
This year’s thrilling WRC championship reaches its half way point with round seven, Rally Italia Sardegna in Sardinia, on 8-12 June.
Vodafone Rally de Portugal (round 6 of 13)
S Ogier / J Ingrassia (Ford Fiesta) 3hr 44min 55.7sec
T Neuville / N Gilsou (Hyundai i20) +15.6sec
D Sordo / N Gilsou (Hyundai i20) + 1min 01.7sec
O Tänak / M Jarveöja (Ford Fiesta) + 1min 30.2sec
C Breen / S Martin (Citroen C3) + 1min 57.4sec
E Evans / D Barritt (Ford Fiesta) + 3min 10.6sec
FIA World Rally Championship (after round 6 of 13): ?