Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala increased his lead on Rally de Portugal on Friday afternoon, again setting the pace through Viana do Castelo.
Latvala finished the morning loop 6.1 seconds up on Kris Meeke and while SS5 was cancelled due to nearby forest fires, the second best time in SS6 and the quickest time SS7, was sufficient to see him almost double his advantage and he now heads into the overnight halt in Exponor with an 11.1 second cushion.
“I was surprised how rough it was [in SS6], but overall a good day,” Latvala told the official WRC site. “Step by step I have been increasing my speed. I have to be satisfied with what we have done here.
“I hope to take advantage of this road position tomorrow now. It's been a hard time for me, so a good result would be good for the championship.”
Speaking back in service, he added: “I was a bit slower on the opening stages, but found a better rhythm as the stages went on and went on the attack more and more. On the third stage of the day I seized the lead and kept on extending it. The conditions weren't easy, it was very sandy and there were lots of stones on the track. No doubt the starting position helped us today. Naturally we want to see more of the same tomorrow and the next day.”
Meanwhile, Meeke was 'only' fourth in SS6 and SS7 in his Citroen DS 3 WRC and felt he had got his tyre choices wrong for the repeat loop, although he remains in P2 overall, now 4.2s up on VW Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen. The two had been split by 3s after SS4.
“We weren't really expecting the roads to change so much between the two runs. At the midday service, we had to take a gamble based on the data we had. In hindsight, if we did it all again, I think I would have gone for a slightly different set-up and tyres,” Meeke conceded. “We still managed to be pretty quick and consistent though and you can see that in the overall standings! Tomorrow, we'll be tackling more new stages. We'll need to keep up the same pace.”
"I'm very happy with how the Rally Portugal has gone so far,” Mikkelsen added. “Today we drove at the speed at which we feel most comfortable. And I really feel at home in the new Polo R WRC. In every situation the car really reacts how I would expect it to, and in a way that suits my driving style. We were fast without taking any major risks.
“The afternoon stages were a little bit more turbulent than we expected. That's why we didn't have the right ground clearance and had lowered the Polo a little bit too much. We made the best of it. And of the early starting position. Anything is possible and I'm already looking forward to Saturday's rally action. With 165 kilometres of special stages, it will be a long hard day. But after today I am convinced that we are perfectly prepared for it."
M-Sport's Ott Tanak has moved up to fourth in the new Fiesta RS WRC, jumping the Hyundai of Dani Sordo after going third in both of the afternoon's stages.
“I have really enjoyed today,” said Tanak. “The car suits me and I'm happy with the handling and the balance which makes the driving really easy. We've had a good rhythm and it was great to see that the times have been pretty good without having to push the limit at all!
“We're very close to the guys ahead but there will be some more tough stages tomorrow. We have to approach it the same way we approached today; with the same speed and the same feeling. But if the feeling is anything like it was today, I see no reason why we can't set some more good times tomorrow.”
“It's been quite a good start to the rally for us and I am pleased to be in a top five position overall,” Sordo continued. “The tyres have been the key factor today so we have had to manage them carefully. I started strongly in the opening stage, taking the stage win, but I opted to save the tyres a bit in the next stage before pushing again to finish the morning loop.
“In the afternoon, the tyres were perhaps a bit soft for the conditions but we made it through safely and have to prepare for tomorrow. The times have been good and the support from the fans has been fantastic.”
Championship leader Sebastien Ogier was another to gain a position and despite being first on the road in his Polo R WRC, was quickest in SS6 and second in SS7 to finish the day sixth overall - 25.8s off the lead and 5.5s up on Citroen's Mads Ostberg in P7.
“We are happy with our performance. We gave it our all, but unfortunately we were a bit unlucky with a puncture in the morning right on the first stage. That cost us a few seconds and ruined my tyre strategy. After that I couldn't drive with four soft tyres on the following stages as planned.
“Then in the afternoon our times were really strong when you look at my starting position. We hardly lost any time to Jari-Matti. Despite that it will be difficult to fight for the win here - it is not easy with this disadvantage [in terms of road position]. But I'm not giving up and I'm counting on the support of the superb fans on Saturday and Sunday. That will give Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I that extra boost."
Behind, Hyundai Motorsport N runner Hayden Paddon is eighth, 8.7s off Ostberg, while team-mate Thierry Neuville and former Formula 1 driver, Robert Kubica round out the top-ten.
“It's been an encouraging day overall and I am reasonably satisfied with our level of competitiveness. This is a new look rally for everyone, which is something of a leveller, but it has put a lot of emphasis on tyre management,” Paddon noted.
“In the morning loop, I had to look after the soft tyres a bit, and had to take a conservative approach in SS3 but we then finished the loop strongly. The first of our two afternoon stages was very rough and the car was bottoming out a lot but we kept a good pace. There are definitely things that we can work on - both from a car and driver point of view - to go faster, so that's what we'll do ahead of tomorrow.”
“It's been a difficult day”, Neuville added. “In our case, we gambled on a different tyre strategy compared to the others, opting to keep some soft tyres back for tomorrow as we expected conditions to be more slippery. As a result, we had a tough start to the rally, and we lost a bit more time than I expected. We saw some significant tyre wear in the afternoon, which might make things difficult tomorrow. We will sit down this evening to adjust our plan accordingly and hope for a stronger day.”
In WRC2, the principal support category, Nasser Al-Attiyah now leads and is 12th overall (one spot behind Martin Prokop in P11). Yazeed Al-Rajhi is second, 13.5s back, with Pontus Tidemand third. Karl Kruuda lost the class lead and slipped to sixth after problems in SS6.
As for retirements, M-Sport's Elfyn Evans and Citroen third driver Khalid Al Qassimi both went out this morning with mechanical issues. Evans went over the time limit, when he had an issue with the throttle in SS2, while Al Qassimi was unable to start SS4 as his handbrake got stuck.
“We had to retire due to a mechanical problem,” said Al Qassimi. “The handbrake became stuck at the start of SS4. I'm really disappointed, but that's part and parcel of racing. There were a lot of rocks on the stages. I tried to avoid them on SS2 and I took a few more risks on SS3. There's plenty of room for improvement, depending on the state of the roads.”
Ford privateer Lorenzo Bertelli then joined them on the sidelines after SS7, unable to make it back to service as a result of suffering two punctures this afternoon.
Rally Portugal now continues on Saturday with six stages on the bill and a total competitive distance of 165.40 km.
SS8, the 18.57 km Baiao 1 test, is due to start at 08.54 hours local time. Full itinerary for event available - HERE
2015 Rally de Portugal: Overall standings after Stage 7 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1h 07m 19.4s
2. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +0m 11.1s
3. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +0m 15.9s
4. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +0m 17.8s
5. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 21.8s
6. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 25.8s
7. Mads Ostberg
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +0m 31.3s
8. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +0m 40.0s
9. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +1m 08.0s
10. Robert Kubica
Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 29.1s
11. Martin Prokop
Jipocar Czech National Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m 48.3s
12. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC +3m 29.4s
13. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +3m 42.9s
14. Pontus Tidemand
Skoda Fabia R5 +4m 12.8s
WRC2 standings after Stage 7 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC 1h 10m 48.8s
2. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 13.5s
3. Pontus Tidemand
Skoda Fabia R5 +0m 43.1s
SS2. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC OTL
SS4. Khalid Al Qassimi
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC Mechanical
SS7. Lorenzo Bertelli
Ford Fiesta RS WRC Retired on road section on way back to service
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial