The Vodafone Rally de Portugal showcased intense competition as the FIA World Rally Championship entered one of its most gripping seasons in recent memory. The rally, held from May 11th to May 14th, marked the fifth round of the championship and set the stage for a series of challenging gravel events.
Elfyn Evans of Toyota Gazoo Racing, who claimed a classy victory in Croatia last month, faced heightened pressure as he shared the championship lead. With his teammate Sébastien Ogier absent from competition, Evans took on the challenge of opening the road on Friday’s first leg, contending with low grip and slippery sand-coated roads. His goal was to leave a cleaner line for the drivers behind him and maximize his performance in loose conditions.
Defending champion Kalle Rovanperä, still seeking his first win of the season, knew what it took to win from the front. Rovanperä, along with Evans and Takamoto Katsuta, formed a three-strong Toyota entry. The podium result achieved by Esapekka Lappi in the previous rally further motivated Hyundai’s performance, with Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo driving alongside Lappi.
M-Sport Ford’s Ott Tänak, sitting fourth in the championship standings, aimed to challenge for top honors. The rally was based in Matosinhos, a coastal city, and featured 19 speed tests covering a total distance of 329.06km in northern and central Portugal. The event concluded on Sunday afternoon with a finale over the iconic roads of Fafe.
After a vicious opening day, Kalle Rovanperä emerged as the leader, surpassing Hyundai Motorsport’s Dani Sordo. The day proved to be brutal, with heat, dust, and punishing rock-strewn roads taking a toll on the competitors. Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris showcased exceptional performance, winning three of the eight special stages and securing a 10.7-second lead over Sordo.
Rovanperä had initially faced understeer issues but made setup adjustments that transformed his car’s performance. Sordo, who inherited the top spot due to wheel damage on Ott Tänak’s Ford Puma, found himself trailing Rovanperä. Thierry Neuville, Sordo’s teammate, finished the day in third place, 15.2 seconds behind the leader. The battle for the final podium spot was intense, with Lappi, Loubet, and Neuville separated by a mere 1.3 seconds.
Day 2 saw Kalle Rovanperä extending his lead and displaying dominance throughout the stages. Unyielding and unstoppable, Rovanperä’s Toyota GR Yaris set the fastest times in five out of the seven gravel speed tests. His lead, which started at 10.7 seconds, grew to almost one minute by the end of the day. Rovanperä’s outstanding performance showcased raw speed reminiscent of the demanding Safari Rally Kenya conditions.
As Rovanperä surged ahead, Dani Sordo focused on fending off the i20 N cars of Esapekka Lappi and Thierry Neuville. Lappi’s early pace faded in the afternoon, allowing Neuville to claim third place, just 2.3 seconds ahead of Lappi and 11.1 seconds behind Sordo. Pierre-Louis Loubet retired close to the finish of Amarante 1 due to steering damage, enabling Ott Tänak to secure fifth place.
The leaderboard was predominantly occupied by WRC2 cars, with Oliver Solberg leading Gus Greensmith, Yohan Rossel, Andreas Mikkelsen, and Teemu Suninen completing the top 10.
On the final day, Kalle Rovanperä sealed his victory at Vodafone Rally de Portugal, securing his second consecutive triumph at the event and catapulting himself to the top of the FIA World Rally Championship standings. Rovanperä’s dominant performance not only marked his first win of the season but also established a 17-point lead over Ott Tänak after five rounds of the championship.
The Finnish star took control of the rally when Tänak encountered wheel damage on Friday afternoon, allowing Rovanperä to establish a slim 10.7-second lead by the end of the opening leg. Building on that lead, Rovanperä unleashed a masterful display on Saturday, securing five stage wins and stretching his advantage to a commanding 57.5 seconds. He maintained his form on Sunday, flawlessly navigating the four-stage finale to finish 54.7 seconds ahead of second-placed Dani Sordo.
Expressing his joy and gratitude, Rovanperä acknowledged his co-driver Jonne Halttunen and the team for their unwavering support throughout the rally. With his victory, Rovanperä announced his return to the top and expressed his determination to continue pushing forward.
Esapekka Lappi secured a podium finish for Hyundai, making it two i20 N cars inside the top three. Lappi’s performance marked his second consecutive podium result, contributing to Hyundai’s strong presence in the championship as they remained within 32 points of the leading manufacturer, Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Thierry Neuville, who began the day in third place, faced disappointment as a broken turbocharger hampered his Hyundai’s power. Struggling to maintain pace, Neuville dropped down the standings, allowing Ott Tänak to claim fourth place while he settled for fifth.
In the WRC2 category, the battle for victory provided an exhilarating conclusion. Gus Greensmith emerged as the winner, edging out Škoda Fabia driver Oliver Solberg by a mere 1.2 seconds. Solberg had led by 35.4 seconds overnight but was penalized with a one-minute time penalty. Andreas Mikkelsen, Yohan Rossel, and Teemu Suninen, also competing in WRC2, completed the leaderboard.
The 56th edition of the Rally de Portugal was a tremendous success, drawing in a crowd of 400,000 spectators and securing its place on the WRC calendar for 2024, with an option for 2025. The event demonstrated its popularity and showcased the thrilling nature of rally racing to fans around the world.
As the championship moves forward, competitors will face more challenges in hot weather and rough roads as the WRC heads to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia for the next event, Rally Italia Sardegna. Taking place in Olbia from June 1st to June 4th, the rally will continue the high-stakes battle for the championship title.