Mikko Hirvonen grabbed a final stage lead in Rally de Portugal tonight after a dramatic day in which a host of top drivers crashed out.
The Finn became the day’s third different leader, winning the final test in his Ford Fiesta RS to relegate Sébastien Ogier. Hirvonen is 3.7sec clear of the hugely impressive Ott Tänak, with Ogier slipping to third, a further 2.8sec back.
Hirvonen was in a pack of six drivers covered by just 9.0sec after three stages this morning. But he feared he had ruined his chances by opting for soft compound Michelin tyres this afternoon when the roads dried quicker than he anticipated.
Although the rubber wore quickly on abrasive roads in the hills above the Algarve, his choice proved better suited than the hard compound selected by Ogier.
“The tyres moved about a lot in the final stage, but it’s fantastic to be ahead,” said Hirvonen. “We’re in a good fight but Ogier won’t be happy with the situation, so I’m sure he’ll attack tomorrow.”
Ogier, who led after last night’s curtain-raiser in Lisbon, slipped behind Dani Sordo who won today’s opening two tests. They were the first stage wins for Hyundai’s i20 and propelled the car into the lead of a WRC round for the first time.
Despite opening the road in conditions that changed constantly between dry and muddy, Ogier regained the advantage on the morning’s final test, only to lose out to Hirvonen this afternoon.
Tänak, like Sordo, was assisted by a low start position, but the Estonian was as impressive here as in Sweden after more than 12 months away from WRC action.
Fourth is Mads Østberg, the Citroen DS3 pilot 19.1sec behind Ogier and just one-tenth of a second clear of Sordo. Thierry Neuville recovered from early understeer to hold sixth, having won the penultimate stage.
Despite a puncture, Henning Solberg is seventh ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen, who is rebuilding his confidence after his Rally Mexico roll. Martin Prokop and WRC 2 leader Jari Ketomaa complete the top 10.
Robert Kubica ripped a wheel off his Fiesta RS after cutting a corner and hitting a tree in SS4, and Elfyn Evans rolling several times after missing a braking point in the same stage.
Jari-Matti Latvala was 0.4sec behind Ogier when he rolled out of second midway through SS5 and Kris Meeke went off the road at the same point as Evans, but on the second pass. The Briton, competing here for the first time, put the accident down to a pace note mistake.
Tomorrow’s action starts at 08.30. Drivers face two identical loops of three stages covering 146.28km, including the 31.90km Santana da Serra, the longest of the rally.