Rovanpera kickstarts title defence with dominant win

The Toyota driver rekindled the devastating form that saw the Finn become the youngest ever world champion to defeat Hyundai’s Dani Sordo by 54.7s after three days of competition across Portugal’s tough gravel stages.

Rovanpera won 10 of the 19 stages, emerging with a 10.8s lead at the end of Friday despite facing the disadvantage of starting second on the road.

The 22-year-old produced one of the best performances of his career to date to extend the advantage to 57.5s, after winning five of the seven stages on Saturday, including a stunning effort on stage 9, which he won by 12.8s.

Saturday’s display allowed Rovanpera to effectively cruise through Sunday’s four stages, although Rovanpera added further gloss to the victory by taking out the Power Stage (Fafe) by 0.7s from Ott Tanak to claim the five bonus points. The second pass through the iconic Fafe featured a bumper crowd and several tributes to the late Hyundai driver Craig Breen.  

A first victory since Rally New Zealand last October, where he sealed the 2022 title, has propelled Rovanpera to the top of the championship standings with a 17-point margin over Ott Tanak.

Sordo briefly led the rally after stage four but once Rovanpera took the lead on stage five he remained in second position for remaining stages.

The experienced Spaniard chalked up three stage wins on his way to a best result to date driving a Rally1 car, finishing second.

Sordo’s Hyundai team-mate Esapekka Lappi claimed the final spot on the podium, 1m20.3s adrift of winner Rovanpera, but ended the rally with smoke pouring from the rear of his i20 N. Lappi initially struggled to make the most of his advantageous road position on Friday but improved as the rally continued.

He found himself locked in a fight with team-mate Thierry Neuville with the pair swapping positions on four occasions before the latter suffered a suspected turbo issue on Sunday morning. Neuville’s issue allowed Lappi to inherit third while the former managed to nurse his severely underpowered i20 N through the final stages to finish fifth overall.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

M-Sport’s Tanak endured an eventful rally to finish fourth overall, 2m04.1s adrift. The Estonian impressed in the early stages to lead the rally on Friday morning with a 3.0s margin over Rovanpera. However, his event unravelled when a front right tyre came off the rim costing him 50s, dropping him from the lead to seventh.

Tanak struggled to find the set-up sweet spot with his Puma and battled a hybrid issue on Sunday to recover to fourth overall.

The sister M-Sport Ford Rally1 entry of Pierre-Louis Loubet also led the rally after winning the opening stage but was hampered when a fire broke out at the end of stage four.

The Frenchman was able to continue and remained inside the top four until Saturday’s stage 10 when he clipped a bank and crashed out of the rally. Loubet rejoined the rally on Sunday.

Rovanpera was the only Toyota to complete all the stages as Takamoto Katsuta retired on Friday after suffering an alternator failure before restarting on Saturday. 

Team-mate Elfyn Evans, who headed to Portugal sharing the championship lead, suffered a violent roll on Friday afternoon, which put him out of the entire event. The Welshman and his co-driver Scott Martin, who won in Croatia, emerged from the incident unscathed.       

The WRC2 win went down to a final-stage thriller as Gus Greensmith, battling a power steering issue, just held on to take the victory by 1.2s from a charging Oliver Solberg. The latter lost his 35.4s overnight lead to a one-minute penalty for performing illegal doughnuts in Saturday night’s super special.

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