The famed gravel roads of Portugal played host to round 4 of the 2021 World Rally Championship. Portugal is one of the anchor events on the calendar, the rough dusty gravel stages punish the cars & drivers and reward the brave.
Elfyn Evans paced the shakedown prior to the start of the events, but there was an expectation that this might be Hyundai’s event, given their strong track record on gravel events.
The opening day on Friday saw Hyundai stealing a march on the chasing Toyota’s & Ford’s, tyre choice was once again crucial, evidence that the Pirelli’s have made tyre choice a much bigger factor in determining performance than last year’s Michelin’s across all different surfaces. Ott Tanak closed out the day as the leader after swapping positions throughout the day with Dani Sordo, making it a Hyundai 1-2 at the end of Friday, but Thierry Neuville had a shocker, crashing and freeing his Hyundai of the right rear suspension & wheel, a bitter blow for Neuville’s championship challenge with the Belgian retiring.
Toyota floundered in the difficult conditions in comparison to Hyundai. Sebastian Ogier ended the opening leg in 5th, sweeping the roads and finding no grip on the drying gravel stages in the morning, but luckily finding pace in the afternoon. Elfyn Evans headed up Toyota’s charge ending the day in 3rd but complained of a lack of grip while Takamoto Katsuta made hey in the Portugese sun, finishing Friday in fourth, a good bit of redemption for the young Japanese driver who has endured some challenging times in the past year in the WRC. A frustrated Kalle Rovanperra was 6th on Friday, blaming car set-up issues and understeer for a lack of pace throughout Friday; Rovanperra’s Yaris set-up more for wet conditions than dry conditions which hampered the Young Finn’s charge.
Ford retained Adrien Fourmaux for Rally Portugal after the young Frenchman’s sensational WRC debut in Croatia, he ended Friday in 8th position; initially heading teammate Gus Greensmith who had pace but suffered a puncture in the morning. Formeaux spun and picked up a puncture in the afternoon, allowing Greensmith to end the day in 7th after a string of top 3 stage times allowed Greensmith to recover precious time lost in the morning.
Ott Tanak immediately set to work on Saturday morning, determined to turn around his 2021 luck and consolidate his lead heading into Sunday. Tanak set a blistering pace in the morning and going into the afternoon, pulling clear of Elfyn Evans & Dani Sordo. Tanak’s rotten luck struck again, powering through the second run on the Amarante stage; the right rear suspension on Tanak’s Hyundai failed, the Estonian tried in vain to drag the Hyundai i20 through the stage, but with 4km left till the end of the stage, Tanak pulled over it was retirement, another strike against Hyundai’s & Tanak’s championship ambitions. Elfyn Evans pulled clear to lead with Dani Sordo in hot pursuit heading into the final leg on Sunday.
Seb Ogier rounded out the podium over a minute back from Sordo, the Frenchman had managed to claw back time where he could, putting in the sort of calculated, savvy drive we all expect from the multiple champion. The driver who grabbed the headlines was Takamoto Katsuta, who battled throughout the day with Ogier; Katsuta showing the world why Toyota signed him and silencing his critics. Kalle Rovanperra retired on Saturday with a reliability issue, it marked the second event where the Rovanperra had failed to pick up any points, something the Finn will want to turn around to get his championship challenge back on track.
Adrien Fourmaux & Gus Greensmith traded positions throughout Saturday as both parties battled with similar throttle issues in their Ford Fiesta’s through Saturday, it was however a breakout performance for both Greensmith and Formeaux with the Fiesta’s showing a level of competitiveness which hasn’t been seen in a while.
Thierry Neuville restarted on Saturday after his crash on Saturday, but retired after declaring the car undrivable and calling it a day.
Sunday would see two runs through one of WRC’s most iconic stages, the fearsome Fafe. The jump at the end of the stage is the most iconic and recognisable part of any WRC event. Elfyn Evans, despite leading was frustrated after dropping time to Dani Sordo on the Saturday evening street stage around Porto; this lit the metaphorical fire under Evans backside, leading to Evans crushing any hope of Sordo overhauling the Welshman, Evans doubling his lead on the Sunday morning’s stages, giving him a marked advantage heading into the final Wolf Power Stage around Fafe.
Evans & Toyota changed their tyre choice prior to the final run around Fafe, a move which Evans regretted almost the moment he roared off into the stage, because it was the wrong choice and allowed Sordo to close back up. Luckily, Evans had secured enough of an advantage to clinch victory from Dani Sordo in 2nd. Sebastien Ogier rounded out the podium after a challenging event with Takamoto Katsuta taking a career best 4th place finish, Gus Greensmith also secured a career best finish in 5th while Adrien Fourmaux finished in 6th.
Post event, high drama unfolded as Ole Christian Veiby, Hyundai’s WRC2 driver was served with a six month ban from the WRC. Veiby, who tested positive for Covid19 on the Thursday before the event began, pulled out of the event, but he had failed to declare he had been in close contact with Andreas Mikkelsen who recently tested positive for Covid. There was also the contentious issue of both him & co driver Jonas Andersson driving from Portugal to Spain following confirmation Veiby had Covid, once again in breach of Covid regulations. Veiby’s six month suspension means he will miss the remainder of the WRC2 season while co-driver Andersson received a 3 month ban. Hyundai was reprimanded as they should ensure all staff are fit to attend and compete in the event.
Veiby was not the only individual served with a 6 month ban as Volodymyr Korsia, co-driver to Georg Linnamae had also failed to declare a positive covid test, despite taking additional Covid tests that proved negative, the failure to declare the positive test will see Korsia banned from WRC competition until the 6 month time period lapses.
The next round of the WRC takes place in Sardinia in Italy June 3rd to June 6th, until next time, stay safe.
WRC Rally Portugal results:
- Elfyn Evans
- Dani Sordo
- Sebastien Ogier
- Takamoto Katsuta
- Gus Greensmith
- Adrien Fourmaux
WRC Drivers championship standings:
- Sebastien Ogier – 79 points
- Elfyn Evans – 77 points
- Thierry Neuville – 57 points
- Ott Tanak – 45 points
- Kalle Rovanperra – 41 points
- Takamoto Katsuta – 36 points
WRC Manufacturers championship standings:
- Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 183 points
- Hyundai Shell Mobis world rally team – 146 points
- M-Sport Ford world rally team – 64 points
- Hyundai 2C Competition – 28 points