|The WRC Rally Portugal, the 50th Anniversary edition, has kicked off with the shakedown in Matosinhos, near Porto, in the north of the country.|
After two slow start rounds, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville has been on a roll following a podium and two wins in the last three rallies. He now is just 18 points from 4-time WRC Champion M-Sport’s Sebastien Ogier after five rounds. “We are still on a high after the results of Corsica and Argentina. At the same time, we know we have to stay focused and concentrated on our job because the championship is incredibly close,’ the i20 Coupe driver said. “We can take nothing for granted. Rally Portugal in its current format is still a bit of a new one for us, having only been in the north of the country for the last two seasons. It is quite a tricky event, but I am looking forward to it. I am sure that with this new car and with the confidence we have, we can be fast.”
Neuville will have to be fast if he is to beat Ogier on an event the Frenchman has won four times. Another win this weekend would pull Ogier level with Markku Alén who won a record five times. “Portugal is an event that I look forward to every year. Julien (Ingrassia) and I have had a lot of success there and it was where we took our first victory so it holds a lot of special memories,” Ogier said. “We will push the limits to challenge for the win. Opening the road on the first day will probably make it harder for us, but we come to Portugal with high objectives and a focus on increasing our championship lead once again.”
Toyota has entered a third car for testing purposes at Rally Portugal with Esapekka Lappi behind the wheel. Lappi joins Jari-Matti Latvala and Juho Hänninen in action on the gravel event.
The Shakedown saw Hyundai’s Dani Sordo top the fastest drivers list; just 0.2 seconds split the four drivers. Ogier, Latvala and Citroen’s Kris Meeke were in the top four. Sordo moved to the front in the second run before going even quicker in his third and final pass in a Hyundai i20 Coupe. Championship leader Ogier, driving a Fiesta, posted his best time in his third and final pass, while Latvala was one of several drivers to opt for additional runs in his Toyota Yaris.
Meeke was the best performer for Citroen during the shakedown, setting the fourth fastest time. After completing the three mandatory runs, Meeke headed back to the Matosinhos service park to alter the set-up of the C3 WRC, then completed another two runs to end the session with the fourth fastest time, 3/10ths off the lead pace.
Team mates Stéphane Lefebvre completed two series of two passes on the 4.6km-long stage. On his final run, the Frenchman were on course to set a top-ten time when they stalled on a hairpin. In the end, he set the twelfth fastest time. Third Citroen crew Craig Breen completed five passes. On his third attempt, Breen set the thirteenth fastest time, a tenth of a second behind his team-mates. The fourth crew Khalid Al Qassimi completed five runs and ended up sixteenth fastest.
The crews now prepare to drive onto the Guimarães podium for the ceremonial start of the rally, with the first stage of the rally on the agenda.