Thierry Neuville has raced back into the lead in the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship after winning a gruelling Vodafone Rally de Portugal on the weekend.
Victory at the sixth round of the WRC in northern Portugal promoted Neuville to the top of the drivers’ standings for the second time this year as the series approaches its midpoint. After starting 10 points behind reigning champion Sébastien Ogier, the Belgian left Portugal 19 points ahead and with his Hyundai team still leading the manufacturers’ standings.
Neuville won by 40 seconds over M-Sport teammates Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, steering his Hyundai i20 away from trouble during four days of attrition that sidelined many frontrunners.
Ogier and fellow title challenger Ott Tänak were among drivers who ended pointless after falling foul of Friday’s rock-strewn stages. Kiwi Hayden Paddon’s return to Hyundai after 11 weeks on the bench started with victory on stage two but ended abruptly with a crash later in the day that ended his rally.
Neuville hit 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 on Saturday and pressed it home on Sunday by claiming four bonus points in the closing Power Stage to secure his second win of the year.
“It was a clever approach all weekend. I had a fantastic car which was working well and I felt comfortable,” he said. “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 teammate 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 Hyundai. Sordo went to bed on Saturday night in third but woke on Sunday morning in fourth after receiving a 10sec penalty for dislodging two bales on a Porto street stage roundabout on Friday night.
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.
Results, Vodafone Rally de Portugal (WRC round 6 of 13):
1) Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 3h49m46.6s
2) Elfyn Evans/Daniel Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +40.0s
3) Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +47.3s
4) Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m00.9s
5) Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1m04.7s
6) Mads Ostberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroen C3 WRC) +3m33.5s
7) Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +5m23.0s
8) Pontus Tidemand/Jonas Andersson (Skoda Fabia R5) +14m10.8s
9) Lukasz Pieniazek/Przemyslaw Mazur (Skoda Fabia R5) +16m17.3s
10) Stephane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (Citroen C3 R5) +16m34.3s