Citroën Total World Rally Team star Sébastien Ogier has taken an early lead on this weekend's Rally Portugal, but with four of the 17 stages completed, a scant six seconds blankets the top four competitors.
Ogier snatched the lead off the back of a blistering performance on SS4, the 21.31-kilometre Felizes run, and as he bids to atone for the accident that cost him a likely victory in Mexico three weeks ago with a repeat of his breakthrough World Rally Championship triumph in the Algarve last year, the Frenchman holds a slender 2.8-second advantage over team-mate, namesake and compatriot Sébastien Loeb.
“I'm happy at the moment,” the 27-year-old confessed. “Everything is perfect. We started quite slowly and it took some time to wake up, but now it's okay. The rally is very long, though.”
Having cured earlier understeer issues by modifying the suspension settings on his own DS3 WRC, Loeb acknowledged that compared to Mexico and Sweden, Portugal is 'a more even fight because there is not so much road cleaning', whilst the championship's 'recordman' was hotly pursued himself by Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pairing Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, the Finnish duo separated by just 2.7 seconds.
World championship leader and Thursday super-special pace-setter Hirvonen only actually conceded his advantage on SS4 and admitted that he has enjoyed 'a good morning' – but there were fewer smiles in the Petter Solberg camp, with a superb effort to top the times on SS2 being swiftly undone by a front-right puncture on SS3, costing the luckless Norwegian more than a minute.
Sixth is Matthew Wilson, just ahead of his own M-Sport Stobart team-mate Henning Solberg – as both reported suspected misfires in their Fiesta RS WRCs – with former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen eighth and conceding to finding it tough going on gravel after skipping the Mexican round.
Armindo Araújo has climbed to an impressive ninth on the WRC bow for the new MINI John Cooper Works Super 2000 – although the local hero insists he is taking no risks as he seeks simply to gain experience in the car for the future – with Bernardo Sousa overcoming an earlier 'off' to currently round out the top ten on his Ford Fiesta RS WRC debut.
There were similar setbacks for Federico Villagra and Khalid Al Qassimi in eleventh and 12th respectively, whilst Mads Østberg was forced out of the reckoning as early as stage two with a broken gearbox.
On his debut in a Subaru Impreza, meanwhile, Hayden Paddon has stolen the PWRC lead from Andres Grondal, whilst title rival Patrik Flodin lost in the region of eight minutes with a roll on stage three. Craig Breen has supplanted José Suárez at the top of the leaderboard for the new-for-2011 FIA WRC Academy for identical Ford Fiesta R2s.
Rally de Portugal: Overall standings after Stage 4 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 43mins 22.2secs
2. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 02.8secs
3. Mikko Hirvonen
Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 03.3secs
4. Jari-Matti Latvala
Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 06.0secs
5. Petter Solberg
PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC +00mins 55.8secs
6. Matthew Wilson
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 14.2secs
7. Henning Solberg
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 19.2secs
8. Kimi Raikkonen
ICE1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC +01mins 54.2secs
9. Armindo Araújo
Motorsport Italia/BAMP Mini John Cooper Works S2000 +01mins 54.9secs
10. Bernardo Sousa
Team Quinta do Lorde Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 12.6secs
11. Federico Villagra
Munchis Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 24.8secs
12. Khalid Al-Qassimi
Team Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 37.0secs
13. Dennis Kuipers
FERM Powertools Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 06.1secs
15. Anders Grondal
Subaru Impreza STi +03mins 26.5secs
16. Peter Van Merksteijn
Van Merksteijn Citroen DS3 WRC +03mins 42.4secs
28. Daniel Oliveira
Brazil WRT Mini John Cooper Works S2000 +06mins 33.9secs
PWRC standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):
1. Hayden Paddon
Subaru Impreza STI 46mins 34.8secs
2. Anders Grondal
Subaru Impreza STi +00mins 13.9secs
3. Ricardo Moura
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +01mins 45.8secs
WRC Academy standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):
1. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta R2 49mins 21.3secs
2. Yeray Lemes
Ford Fiesta R2 +00mins 29.8secs
3. Alastair Fisher
Ford Fiesta R2 +00mins 58.3secs
M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC Gearbox on SS2
Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Crashed in shakedown
all times unofficial