Currently reading: Rovanpera extends WRC lead with victory in Portugal
The 21-year-old Toyota man remains the youngest driver ever to ever lead top rally series

With the dust having settled over Rally Portugal, the result is that 21-year-old Toyota driver Kalle Rovanperä extends his championship lead – the youngest ever to head the series.

But that’s far from the full story. Portugal – always known for being the first proper indicator of what the real pecking order is, after a series of specialised events that open the World Rally Championship (WRC) season – contained as many twists and turns as a Corsican mountain stage, with conditions as extreme as the devotion showed by Portugal’s famously passionate fans. Here’s how it panned out:

Remarkable Rovanperä

It shouldn’t be possible to win in Portugal from first on the road, and certainly not when it’s your first time in that position on a gravel rally. Rovanperä was only 10th quickest in Friday’s first stage but wound up as the winner, having now won three rallies on the bounce on three totally different surfaces. Not only that, but he also claimed a maximum five points on the final Power Stage.

After four of 13 rounds, Rovanperä now holds a championship lead of 46 points over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville – which is on the trajectory towards being unassailable. Toyota’s advantage at the head of the constructors’ standings (again over Hyundai) is 59 points.

GR Yaris great on gravel

As the first gravel event of the season, Portugal provided the toughest test yet for the new generation of hybrid Rally1 cars.

The Toyota GR Yaris was the class of the field, winning 15 of the 19 stages on gravel and coming incredibly close to a podium lockout – denied only by a power stage push from Hyundai veteran Dani Sordo to edge out Takamoto Katsuta.

Despite this being Sordo's first event in the latest-generation hybrid car (he shares a part-programme with Oliver Solberg), the Spaniard was disappointed at the end of Rally Portugal. “It’s not a real third place,” he said. “We weren’t so quick all weekend.”

No country for old men

The new WRC era started in January with legendary Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier dominating Rallye Monte-Carlo and somewhat showing up the full-time drivers. Both reappeared in Portugal but saw their victory hopes end already on Friday afternoon: M-Sport’s Loeb with a rare mistake just metres into Special Stage Five while leading, Ogier with a pair of punctures on his Toyota shortly afterwards. Both hit further trouble after restarting on Saturday morning, too, sending them onto the retirements list for a second time.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was Pierre-Louis Loubet who was M-Sport’s top representative home, in seventh place, ahead of team mates Craig Breen and Adrien Fourmaux.


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Rough and rocky ride

The roads of central Portugal around Arganil are known for being rough on the second pass, but many believed Friday afternoon’s loop to be the rockiest conditions ever seen in Portugal and likened the roads to those previously seen in Turkey. The sharp stones and deep ruts caused tyre troubles for many, but the remaining two days further north ran much more smoothly. As Breen said after picking up a puncture on Friday: “I’m not sure exactly where it happened: it could have been in one of about 150 places…”

The rising of the son

Who would have guessed that after four rounds, the third-placed man in the championship would be Katsuta? The son of an eight-time Japanese national champion has a big gap to Neuville in second but is a surprise best of the rest.

And the drama didn't stop there…

It wasn’t just at the front where it was all happening. Jari Huttunen lost the WRC2 victory on the very final Power Stage after sliding his Hyundai off the road with a class lead of nearly a minute. Yohan Rossel and Citroën, who inherited the category win (in 10th overall) couldn’t quite believe their luck.

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chris1969 23 May 2022

Very strange report for a British publication.  Why isn't the Brit Evans mentioned who came second and won a significant number of stages?