Fri 12 May 2023

Rovanpera ahead after brutal opening day in Portugal

Kalle Rovanperä mastered a brutal opening leg at Vodafone Rally de Portugal to head Hyundai Motorsport rival Dani Sordo overnight.

A thrilling fight in the morning became a matter of survival in the afternoon as heat, dust and punishing rock-strewn roads took a heavy toll in this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship season.

While several of his rivals faltered, Rovanperä won three of the eight special stages in a Toyota GR Yaris to head Sordo by 10.7sec after more than 120km of action during which three different drivers led.

Rovanperä was plagued by excessive understeer in the opening two stages but set-up adjustments later in the morning transformed his car.

The Finn surpassed Sordo, who inherited the top spot when Ott Tänak’s Ford Puma sustained wheel damage in Lousã 2, and extended his advantage further when the Spaniard overshot a junction in the penultimate stage. 

"It has been a really good day," said Rovanperä. "Lots of cleaning, but still we did a steady day. We were fast but we also took care of the car and the tyres."

Sordo’s i20 N team-mate Thierry Neuville was third, 15.2sec behind. The Belgian reclaimed the final podium spot in the Figueira da Foz super special, leapfrogging colleague Esapekka Lappi and M-Sport Ford youngster Pierre-Louis Loubet in the process. Just 1.3sec blanketed the three drivers at close of play, with Loubet edging Lappi in the finale to take fourth overall by 0.3sec.

Fourth was well-deserved for Loubet. After winning the opener, the Frenchman then verged on retirement when his car caught fire on the stop line of Arganil 1. He and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul were able to continue after extinguishing the flames, later tracing the cause to their Puma’s exhaust.

“The car started to have fire, one kilometre before the end of the stage,” Loubet said. “We don’t have luck this year, it’s crazy.”

Tänak recovered to end the day sixth overall, while the remaining positions on the leaderboard were dominated by WRC2 cars. Oliver Solberg led Gus Greensmith, with Yohan Rossel and Andreas Mikkelsen rounding out the top 10.

Championship leader Elfyn Evans retired after crashing his Toyota in Mortágua. His team-mate Takamoto Katsuta bowed out earlier in the day with alternator failure. 

If Friday was tough, Saturday is just as daunting. Almost 150km is packed into two loops of three speed tests. Crews have the respite of mid-leg service and a super special stage at Lousada rounds out the day’s action.

Exhausted: Loubet avoids fire drama in Portugal
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