WRC 2015: Jari-Matti Latvala wins Rally Portugal
This was Sebastien Ogier's eternal nightmare. Being the best driver on the course, but losing the rally because of the starting order rules! In the end the Frenchman showed true brilliance by finishing second behind team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and in front of Andreas Mikkelsen, scoring an impressive VW 1-2-3 result but not in the sequence he would have wished! The WRC's return to the European mainland, and the Rally of Portugal's return to the old traditional north of the country were the scenes of an amazing event, in which no fewer than three new types of car made their WRC debut and every category was full of exciting moments.
Latvala yumped his way to victory at Rally Portugal, ahead of VW team-mates Ogier and Mikkelsen
The reality was that Ogier and the Citroen driver Mads Ostberg suffered from the starting order rules and Latvala and Ostberg's teammate Kris Meeke got the benefit. Kris Meeke had a drama free event and finished the best non-VW, and Ostberg suffered from a team set-up confusion and then a turbo problem, finished seventh behind the best Ford (Tanak) and the best Hyundai (Sordo). All of which underlined the remarkable persistent effort of Ogier. In the first part of the event when stage running order was the most significant, he scored only one scratch time, and that was on the hideously rough stage 6. On the last six stages of the event he was quickest five times and won the supplemental points Power Stage. 'Formidable!'
At WRC level this was a disappointing event for M-Sport, making the debut appearance with their new global engines. These were disappointing especially when Elfyn Evans had a rally he will want to forget, stopping on the first orthodox stage with electrical trouble and then crashing into a rock early on Day 2. Ott Tanak was only able to score a top-six time on the stages on three occasions and finished fifth overall, with the two private new-evolution Fiesta WRCs of Kubica and Prokop finishing ninth and tenth, the best Pirelli finishers. Happily M-Sport can take comfort from the splendid result of their new R2 cars. Citroen appeared with a new appealing colour scheme and aerodynamic improvements but had a strange event, only going really well on Day 2 on stages which were much cleaner despite his running order advantage should have offered, while Ostberg had technical troubles when all was getting better after a cautious start. He only went really well when he won stage 3 which was very rough.
Ninth-place at Portugal helped Robert Kubica to his first points of 2015
It started off very hopefully for Hyundai when Dani Sordo made best time on the first stage on Day 1 but he started sliding downhill, finally finishing sixth. Thierry Neuville competed on Day 1 with hard tyres, hoping this would be a good long term strategy but this all went wrong when he rolled on Day 2 in front of teammate Sordo! Hayden Paddon started learning the trick of cross-matching tyre management and was lucky to escape a serious delay when his gearbox was smashed on the final stage on Day 2.
Final word from the winner, "With my results on the last three rallies some people are doubting if I would ever come back. I had faith. People had been in even worse situations but it has been one of the most difficult periods of my rally career, having three rallies without any points. To come back after that that then win is something really unique. Today (Seb and I) were quite equal and I was focussed. But I really appreciated this victory because there are some people who have belief in me and worked with me, so this is really important". There we are, the championship is now back on European soil and looking good, and the Portuguese organisers are breathing again after their many experiments regarding location and spectator systems all worked well. And, then Latvala winning, there is just a little more life in the race to the Drivers' title as well. Volkswagen and Ogier maintained their leads in the Manufacturers' and Drivers' series now ahead of Citroen and Mikkelsen respectively. Latvala jumped from ninth to fifth place.
Nasser Al Attiyah continued his exceptional unbeaten run of rally and cross country results this season when he won WRC2, but with the return of Skoda to the WRC with their new Fabia R5 as official entrants in the category, this led to a series of reappraisal of Nasser's plans. The centre of Al Attyah's planning were the stages themselves, hard packed and sandy, quite different from the much rockier stages experienced in recent Portugal Rallies in the south of the country. He ran a back-to-back test between Michelin, Pirelli and DMack tyres before the event and plumped for Pirelli, deliberately choosing an alternative strategy to Skoda who were tied contractually to Michelin. The choice was made more complicated as Michelin and Pirelli both chose hard compound tyres as their prime supply, whereas only DMack chose soft compounds, even though the general consensus was that the faster tyres were softs. The competition in WRC2 was intense with Nasser, Jari Ketomaa, Karl Kruuda, Yazeed Al Rajhi, Pontus Tidemand and Esapekka Lappi all challenged for top positions. Kruuda had problems, Ketomaa retired after a spectacular crash at the Fafe jump. In the end the Skoda team of Lappi and Tidemand were Al Attiyah's main challengers, finishing second and third but then Lappi was penalised for a tyre offence and then it was cancelled. The most spectacular failures of the event were the Peugeot 208 T16 R5 cars, which suffered from dust entering the inlets and damaging the oil pumps or the engines, and all four such cars retired. The six Citroen DS3 R5 cars fared only slightly better, with Stephane Lefebvre finishing fifth behind the Fiesta RRC of Julien Maurin. Keith Cronin withdrew after a heavy testing crash, Quentin Giordano after engine failure. Ketomaa and his Drive DMack team maintained their leads in WRC2 and Teams' categories while in the Production Car Sub category Simone Tempestini, Gianluca Linari and Alain Foulon were now equal in the lead.
The WRC3 and the Junior WRC categories were involved with Quentin Gilbert winning both, and an impressive second place on both was taken by Pierre-Louis Loubet. The only driver to challenge Gilbert on speed was Simone Tempestini, who had a car change after a testing accident but then missed stages on Day 1 and finally finished sixth. Gilbert was now equal on points in the lead of WRC3 with Ole Christian Veiby, and also led the Junior category. In the WRC3 Teams' Sub category Printsport continued to hold the lead.
Impressively for half the rally there were no disasters for the DDFT drivers and there was a fight between Marius Aasen, Tom Cave and Max Vatanen, all of who took turns to lead in the early stages, but finally it was Max who won on his second Portugal Rally. Max's father Ari only ever finished the event on his eighth and final attempt. Also impressive was the performance and reliability of the new three-cylinder turbo Fiesta R2 cars with Vatanen and Aasen finished first and second also in their class beating the Opel Adam R2 of Marijan Griebel. The RC4 class embraced both WRC3 (Peugeots) and Drive DMack (Ford) crews and was ultimately won by Vatanen with stages won by five different drivers including Griebel.