Rovanpera shifts up a gear with dominant Portugal WRC display

Kalle Rovanpera leads the Portugal WRC round

Kalle Rovanpera leads the Portugal WRC round

A crushing display from Kalle Rovanpera has not only put the Finn on the brink of scoring his first victory of the season – it also left his rivals floundering after the world champion turned a lead of 10.8s into 57.5s heading into Sunday’s closing leg.

Without a win so far in 2023 and playing catch-up in the World Rally Championship battle, Rovanpera meant business from Saturday’s opening stage in Portugal by notching up the first of four fastest times in succession.

“I just woke up today and thought that we should drive a bit of rally,” Rovanpera said.

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“We have done a few good mornings [before now], but this was a really good one. The whole loop was good.”

Rovanpera’s fastest time through Saturday’s penultimate stage was his eighth out of a possible 15 and came despite his intercom failing during the run.

With no working intercom for the day-deciding super special at the Lousada rallycross track, the Toyota driver was the slowest of the surviving Rally1 drivers, not that he was fazed by the small time loss.

“I don’t really feel today was so special,” the 22-year-old said. “I lost my intercom on the last [full-length] stage and had a careful run through the final stage. Now we can look forward to tomorrow with a good lead.”

As Rovanpera charged ahead, the battle for second and third quickly developed into a three-way fight between factory Hyundai drivers Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville and Esapekka Lappi.

Fifth after day one, Lappi shot ahead of Neuville and Pierre-Louis Loubet on Saturday’s opener and closed to within 3.3s of second-placed Sordo after Stage 10.

But as Sordo gradually edged ahead in the afternoon, Lappi slipped back to fourth behind Neuville. With Sunday’s four stages remaining, the Finn is 2.7s behind the Belgian, who is in turn 12.8s adrift of Spaniard Sordo.

However, with Hyundai team chief Cyril Abiteboul hinting at team orders to favour Neuville’s title bid, it’s likely the positions of the leading two Hyundais will be reversed.

Loubet’s pursuit of a podium ended close to the finish of the first run through the 37.24km Amarante test when he slammed into a tree root and damaged his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid’s steering.

The Frenchman’s misfortune allowed his M-Sport Ford team-mate Ott Tanak to move into fifth, 2m18.6s off the lead – a faulty handbrake on the day’s final stage adding to the Estonian driver’s frustration.

Although Elfyn Evans was a non-starter following his heavy Friday crash, the Briton’s Toyota team-mate, Takamoto Katsuta, returned to the action following his alternator failure on Friday.

However, the Japanese driver is far down the order and was saddled by opening the road throughout the day.

Oliver Solberg completes the top six and heads the WRC2 order although the Swede was the subject of an investigation by the stewards having performed a series of doughnuts after crossing the line on the Lousada superspecial, a misdemeanour that could land him with a hefty time penalty.

After 15 stages, Solberg was 35.4s ahead of Toksport Skoda team-mate Gus Greensmith followed by Andreas Mikkelsen, PH Sport Citroen driver Yohan Rossel and Teemu Suninen in a 2C Competition-run Hyundai.

The new 11.05km Paredes stage is up first on Sunday’s deciding leg from 07:05 local time, ahead of the first of two passes of the 11.18km Fafe stage, which includes the iconic Pedra Sentada jump where 20,000 fans have already assembled with thousands more expected.

Cabeceiras de Basto follows the first visit to Fafe and is run in an opposite direction to 2022. The repeat of Fafe forms the points-paying Power Stage from 12:15.

Stan Sport’s live and ad-free coverage of the event resumes this evening at 17:30 AEST.

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