Thierry Neuville won Vodafone Rally de Portugal on Sunday afternoon to swing the FIA World Rally Championship pendulum firmly in his favour.
Victory at the gruelling four-day dirt road encounter promoted the Belgian to the top of the standings as the series approaches its midpoint. After starting 10 points behind reigning champion Sébastien Ogier, the Belgian leaves Portugal with a 19-point advantage.
Neuville steered his Hyundai i20 away from trouble during a weekend of attrition that sidelined many frontrunners to win by 40.0sec from Elfyn Evans’ Ford Fiesta.
Fellow title challengers Ogier and Ott Tänak ended pointless after falling foul of Friday’s rock-strewn speed tests and Neuville pressed home his advantage by claiming four extra bonus points in the final Power Stage.
He moved to the front near the end of Friday’s first leg after the lead changed hands six times in a frantic opening. He doubled his advantage yesterday and eased through Sunday’s finale to secure his second win of the year.
“It was a clever approach all weekend,” he said. “I had a fantastic car which was working well and I felt comfortable. We can be proud of what we achieved here There are a lot of Portuguese mechanics in the team and I think the party is going to be big tonight!”
Second for Evans eased the pressure after a disappointing season and team-mate Teemu Suninen helped erase the frustration of Ogier’s blank weekend in the M-Sport Ford squad by claiming his maiden podium. He finished 7.3sec behind the Welshman.
Suninen held off Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo in an intense fight for the final podium place. Lappi was 7.4sec adrift of his fellow Finn in a Toyota Yaris with Spaniard Sordo 6.2sec further back in his i20.
Sordo went to bed last night in third but woke up this morning in fourth after receiving a 10sec penalty for dislodging two bales on a Porto street stage roundabout on Friday night.
Mads Østberg finished sixth on his first gravel rally in a Citroën C3, ahead of team-mate Craig Breen who was handicapped by starting first on the sandy tracks for the final two legs.
WRC 2 winner Pontus Tidemand was eighth in a Skoda Fabia and fellow support category drivers Lukasz Pieniazek and Stéphane Lefebvre completed the leaderboard.
Andreas Mikkelsen and Jari-Matti Latvala finished well down the order after retiring on Friday, while Ogier was withdrawn in the final service when lying outside the top 20. Hayden Paddon and Kris Meeke joined Tänak in retiring earlier in the weekend.
Round seven promises a high-summer shootout on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The all-gravel Rally Italia Sardegna is based in Alghero on 8 - 10 June.
Head to WRC+ to watch All Live from Vodafone Rally de Portugal, including every stage broadcast live, breaking service park news and expert studio analysis.