Mikko Hirvonen will take a 3.7 second advantage into day two of Rally de Portugal after seizing the lead in the final test of the day.
Hirvonen was sixth following the short Lisboa super special on Thursday evening, but soon moved up the order and after going third quickest in SS2, SS3 and SS4, unsurprisingly he headed into the mid-day service in P3, 1.9 seconds off Jari-Matti Latvala, who in turn was 0.4 seconds off the leader, Sebastien Ogier. On the repeat loop this afternoon, Hirvonen gained a position in SS5 and moved up into second overall when Latvala crashed out. The M-Sport WRT man then closed on Ogier in SS6, before romping ahead in Almodovar 2.
“It's been a really enjoyable day with a great fight at the front; to be leading at the end of it, it's a really good feeling," said Hirvonen. "It's not been an easy day by all means, but everything has been working well and I think that the times and the position that we find ourselves in now is proof of that.
“We opted for the soft tyres for the afternoon, and on the long stage [SS7] I think it probably did help us. When I left service, I was sure we had made the right choice, but after the first stage [of the afternoon, SS5] I was a little nervous. It was a tricky one to get right, but I think we managed it well.
“There are still two difficult days to go, and I am sure that Sebastien [Ogier] and Ott [Tänak] will not give up without a fight, but neither will we!”
Ott Tanak meanwhile also made the most of the final test and overhauled Ogier to give M-Sport a provisional 1-2.
“It's good for us to be in this position," stated Tanak. "It wasn't easy because I haven't driven a world rally car on gravel for a long time, but I think we made the most of it.
“We had a really good feeling with the car. We were struggling with the pacenotes during the morning, but we worked really hard during service to make sure they were right, and this afternoon was perfect. I had the confidence and I was able to push for the good times.
“Tomorrow won't be an easy day, but if we can keep the same pace as today, hopefully we won't be too far away. We just need to keep our focus and continue with what we did today.”
Ogier ended the day down in third, 6.5 seconds off Hirvonen and 3.7 seconds off P2 after 'only' going fifth in SS7 and losing 8.9 seconds. The Frenchman blamed his tyre choice – he went for hards on the second loop – for his failure to hang onto the lead.
“The conditions were not easy – particularly in the morning," Ogier remarked. "The level of grip on offer changed constantly. At times it would be extremely muddy and slippery, then in places there was good grip. We took a cautious approach: as first out you cannot follow the tracks of the cars in front.
"The special stages had dried out considerably by the second run. However, hard tyres were still not the ideal choice. Despite this, Julien [Ingrassia - my co-driver] and I are very happy to be up there with the front-runners.
"Generally speaking, today was an exciting day for the fans, as it has been a long time since we have had so many drivers so tightly bunched.”
Mads Ostberg is next up in his Citroen, around 20 seconds adrift off Ogier in third, and only 0.1 seconds up on the Hyundai of Dani Sordo in fifth. Sordo had a promising day and won the first two stages, the first ever for the i20 WRC.
“It's been a generally positive day for me and for the team," Sordo said. "The Hyundai i20 WRC has felt good even if the conditions this morning were not too easy."
"The first two stages were very slippery and in all honesty I wasn't so happy but it was good to take the stage wins, the first for the team, and to see the car in the fight. We were able to carry on setting a good pace this afternoon but we lost the sump guard on the penultimate stage so we had to take it easy in SS7," he continued. "We hope to have another good day tomorrow with the focus on completing the stages without any trouble.”
Behind, Hyundai team leader, Thierry Neuville is sixth and after struggling this morning, he found the groove on the second pass and was actually quickest in SS6, to match what Sordo achieved on the opening loop.
“It was a mixed day for us and the afternoon was definitely better than the morning loop from my point of view," Neuville stated. "I had a lot more confidence in the afternoon because we worked on the set-up of the Hyundai i20 WRC over lunchtime and we made a good tyre choice. I decided to run the car stiffer on dampers for the second loop and I could feel the improvement almost immediately. That allowed me to increase the rhythm. It was great to take a stage win in SS6 and to improve our overall position by the end of the day. I hope there is more to come tomorrow.”
Further back, Henning Solberg, Juho Hanninen, Andreas Mikkelsen and Martin Prokop hold positions 7 through to 10.
“I have had better days of rallying since joining Volkswagen," Mikkelsen conceded. "We decided before the rally to write new pace notes. Unfortunately, however, it rained so heavily during the 'Recce' that we could hardly see anything, which is why the pace notes are not as detailed as we would like.
"On top of that, the special stages fluctuated between dry, damp and muddy today. The unpredictable road conditions, together with the fact that I did not have 100 per cent confidence in the pace notes, made me very cautious. The result here in Portugal is that we dropped an enormous amount of time. However, I did not want to take too many risks after my two mistakes in Mexico.”
In WRC2, Jari Ketomaa has the overnight lead, 4.7 seconds up on Nasser Al-Attiyah, who had led until SS7, while in the JWRC/WRC3, Alastair Fisher is the man out front, almost 30 seconds up on Martin Koci.
As for retirements, in addition to Latvala, who rolled out in SS5, the afternoon loop also claimed Kris Meeke. Meeke crashed in the same place as fellow countryman, Elfyn Evans, although Evans went out on the first run through Almodovar, as SS4. Robert Kubica was another to go out in that test - SS4 - but at a different point. The stage was blocked for around 15 minutes as a result of the former Formula 1 man's off and notional times were awarded to most of the field.
Rally de Portugal now continues on Saturday, with three more stages on the bill, and like on Friday, they will be run twice. SS8, the 19.09 km Santa Clara 1 test, is due to start at 09.55 hours local time.
Rally de Portugal: Overall standings after Stage 7 (Top 10):
1. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC 1hour 25m 05.6s M
2. Ott Tanak M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 03.7s
3. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 06.5s M
4. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 25.6s M
5. Dani Sordo Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +00m 25.7s M
6. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +00m 42.0s M
7. Henning Solberg Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 35.5s
8. Juho Hanninen Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +01m 58.2s M
9. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +02m 16.2s M
10. Martin Prokop Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02m 59.2s M
11. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 +03m 33.1s WRC2
12. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC +03m 37.8s WRC2
13. Pontus Tidemand Ford Fiesta R5 +04m 55.3s WRC2
14. Karl Kruuda Ford Fiesta S2000 +05m 02.9s WRC2
15. Bernardo Sousa Ford Fiesta RRC +05m 19.1s WRC2
16. Khalid Al-Qassimi Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +05m 48.3s M
WRC2 standings after Stage 7 (Top 3):
1. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 1hour 28m 38.7s WRC2
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC +00m 04.7s WRC2
3. Pontus Tidemand Ford Fiesta R5 +01m 22.2s WRC2
JWRC / WRC3 standings after Stage 7 (Top 3):
1. Alastair Fisher Citroen DS3 R3T 1hour 34m 52.7s WRC3
2. Martin Koci Citroen DS3 R3T +00m 28.7s WRC3
3. Simone Campedelli Citroen DS3 R3T +00m 29.8s WRC3
SS4. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off the road M
SS4. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Lost a wheel M
SS5. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC Rolled M
SS7. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC Crashed M
all times unofficial>Me