After narrowly missing out on victory in Croatia four weeks earlier, Wales’ Elfyn Evans found redemption on Rally Portugal. The Toyota driver’s first win of the season puts him two points behind World Rally Championship leader Sebastien Ogier.
Evans and Scott Martin inherited the Rally Portugal lead on Saturday’s penultimate stage when Ott Tanak was forced to stop with rear-right suspension failure before the end of Amarante.
Tanak’s retirement put his team-mate Dani Sordo in the limelight as Hyundai’s sole remaining chance of winning WRC’s first gravel rally of 2021. Sordo immediately delivered with a stunning superspecial drive reducing Evans’ advantage to 10.7 seconds ahead of Sunday’s five stages.
Evans quashed Hyundai’s hopes straightaway on Sunday’s first nine kilometre stage, Felgueiras. The slippery stage featuring negative camber corners was a rude awakening for the top crews. Evans was peerless on the early morning test, winning the stage by 8.9 seconds, and was faster than Sordo by more than a second a kilometre.
The Welshman’s grip on victory held fast as he gradually increased his 20-second lead to 28 seconds after Portugal’s famous Fafe finale.
“Maybe we weren’t the absolute fastest crew,” explained Evans. “But we still had really good pace and the performance was generally quite consistent.
“This morning we knew that there wasn’t such a big gap to second place, so we had to go out and give it our all.
“That’s what we did, and we managed to set a few good times just to build up a bit of an advantage.
“In Croatia it was quite painful to miss out so it feels good to get this one sealed with relatively little drama.”
It was almost a dream result in Portugal for Toyota as Ogier and Takamoto Katsuta finished third and fourth respectively. Ogier’s rally looked to be ruined by his regular road-sweeping issues on Portugal’s opening day. The reigning World Champion was down in eighth after four stages on Friday.
Despite lacking stage-winning pace, Ogier was rewarded for keeping his nose clean as issues for Tanak, Thierry Neuville, and Kalle Rovanpera aided his climb up the leaderboard.
Ogier’s unlikely points haul means he retains his position at the head of the drivers’ standings but with more loose surfaces in Sardinia next month, Ogier will fear another long Friday opening the road for his rivals.
As for Hyundai, Rally Portugal was nothing short of a disaster. Sordo, Neuville, and Tanak held a comfortable 1-2-3 after six stages. Neuville was the first to bite the Portuguese dust as an optimistic pacenote sent him sideways into a disobliging bank. The Belgian was left with rear-right suspension damage that couldn’t be fixed for the long road section back towards Porto.
Tanak picked up the reins at the front of the field with six stage wins building a 22.4-second lead. Then out of nowhere the Estonian’s perfect performance was undone on Amarante. Tanak’s Hyundai was struggling through the final sections of the 38-kilometre stage showing similar damage to what stopped Neuville a day earlier.
The lead Hyundai eventually stopped, handing Toyota the rally lead for the first time since the start of the rally.
With so many of world rallying’s superstars falling by the wayside, young guns Katsuta, Gus Greensmith, and Adrien Fourmaux were busy showcasing their abilities.
Katsuta’s performance, especially on Saturday, was by far his best to date. If the Japanese driver continues to show such surety in his driving then he’ll make a nice fit for Toyota’s third-driver slot next year.
Greensmith stated his top five intentions before Rally Portugal and M-Sport’s British driver did exactly as he said. Throttle problems hindered his overall result but Greensmith showed genuine strong pace narrowly missing out on several stage wins on his way to fifth overall.
Rally Portugal puts Toyota in a strong position in the manufacturers’ championship fight. 1-2s on Rally Monte-Carlo and Croatia Rally, coupled with its latest double podium leaves Jari-Matti Latvala’s squad 37 points ahead of Andrea Adamo’s flailing Hyundai.
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool, Toyota, and Hyundai.