Rovanpera holds miniscule lead after WRC Rally Portugal’s tight opening leg

Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera made the most of a favorable Friday starting spot to head a frenetic to-and-fro battle for the WRC Rally Portugal’s overnight lead. 

Rovanpera (above) ended the day a mere 1.0s ahead of Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate Sebastien Ogier after an intense fight that saw five different winners from the nine stages making up the 80.68-mile Leg One, and a top four separated by just 5.4s. 

Rovanpera is the two-time and reigning FIA World Rally Champion, but the 23-year-old Finn’s decision to run only a limited schedule in 2024 meant he’d start fifth on the road in Portugal, based on his current championship position. The four drivers above him in WRC points would start ahead of him on the road, effectively sweeping the dusty, rock-strewn stages for Rovanpera’s GR Yaris Rally1.


Initially, he didn’t make the most of it, languishing in fifth overall after a lackluster opener to the morning loop. But after that wakeup call, he earned top-three times in all the remaining stages, relentlessly climbing the leader board despite reporting excessive understeer in his GR Yaris.

He seized the lead after besting teammate and early pacesetter Takamoto Katsuta on the afternoon’s second test at Lousa, then went fastest on the penultimate stage at Arganil. But the blistering pace of eight-time WRC champ Ogier — another of Toyota’s 2024 part-time aces — through the Mortagua finale narrowed the gap and intensified the pressure.

Sebastien Ogier kept the pressure on Toyota teammate Kalle Rovanpera, finishing the day just 1.0s behind. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

“It has been a great battle the whole day,” said Rovanpera. “I could not do much more [in the last stage] because my tires were in such bad condition at the rear and it was just about surviving.

“[The battle] is only fun if you are winning, so let’s see!”

Tire management played a crucial role. Pirelli’s soft-compound rubber was favored for the morning’s sandy surfaces, while hard tires came into play in the afternoon when the repeated loop of stages was rougher and temperatures higher.

Ogier’s late surge boosted him from fourth to second overall. And the winner of last month’s Croatia Rally could have potentially led overnight were it not for an intercom failure during the morning’s final stage and a loss of hybrid power on the afternoon’s penultimate test.

Katsuta lived up to his promise to push hard from the outset, winning the Mortagua 1 stage as well as setting top-three times on both runs of Arganil. He was relatively content to bring up the rear of an overnight Toyota 1-2-3, despite falling 3.7s behind Ogier. 

Completing a super-close quartet, Ott Tanak ended the leg just 0.7s further back from Rovanpera and fastest of the factory Hyundais, despite admitting to a “not nice” feeling behind the wheel of his i20 N Rally1.

Ott Tanak was the first of the non-Toyotas at the overnight halt, holding fourth for Hyundai. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Although Toyota dominated the top spots on the leaderboard, it wasn’t all good news: misfortune befell its leading driver in the current WRC standings, Elfyn Evans, whose co-driver Scott Martin resorted to using his cell phone to access a digital copy of their pace notes after misplacing his actual notebook before the afternoon’s second stage. Their frustrations were compounded by a tire being pushed off the wheel rim in the same stage, costing the British pair almost a minute.

That turn of events was a boon for championship leader Thierry Neuville, who headed Evans by six points before starting Portugal’s fifth round of the 13-event WRC season.

Despite facing the challenge of opening the road and sweeping a line for those running behind in his Hyundai, Neuville managed to stay in touch with the leaders and ended 0.2s behind his teamate Dani Sordo in sixth. Sordo, starting his first WRC round of 2024, lost hybrid power for the morning’s final stage, but still managed to win three of the day’s tests — not a bad return to WRC competition…

M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 driver Adrien Fourmaux headed Evans on his return to the Matosinhos service park, while Puma teammate Gregoire Munster finished the leg ninth and last of the Rally1 entries. 

M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux is seventh, 31.8s from the lead, after a drama-free Friday.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Oliver Solberg showed his fighting spirit, shrugging off an engine issue in his Skoda Fabia RS to take a 7.3s overnight lead.

Entering Portugal tied for the WRC2 points lead with Citroen C3 rival Yohan Rossel, Solberg trailed the Frenchman after Thursday’s super special stage at Figueira da Foz. However, once the gravel road stages kicked off on Friday morning, the 22-year-old Swede wasted no time in asserting his dominance.

Solberg stormed into the lead on Friday’s opener, and despite being briefly overtaken by his Toksport teammate Gus Greensmith at Gois 1, he swiftly regained control with his run through the iconic Arganil stage before midday.

With soaring temperatures and the stages growing increasingly rocky and rutted, preserving tires was crucial during the afternoon loop. Solberg found himself grappling with a mysterious misfire which left his car’s engine running on three cylinders and even cutting out, but some committed driving meant he was able to limit the time loss and hold onto the lead.

Oliver Solberg didn’t led a mysterious misfire dampen his day, the Skoda driver heading WRC2. McKlein/Motorsport Images

Saturday hosts the longest leg of the rally, with 90.1 miles of action packed into two loops of four stages before the Lousada super special stage concludes the day.    

WRC Rally Portugal, positions after Leg One, SS9
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h25m00.4s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1.0s
3 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +4.7s
4 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +5.4s
5 Dani Sordo/Candido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +17.9s
6 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +18.1s
7 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +31.8s
8 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m43.2s
9 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +2m27.3s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Skoada Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +3m42.1s

Check out, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a Rally.TV subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.

Story originally appeared on Racer