Kris Meeke will carry a comfortable lead into the final leg of Vodafone Rally de Portugal after distancing world champion Sébastien Ogier over rough mountain roads on Saturday.
Meeke, returning to FIA World Rally Championship action after a two-event absence, completed a clean sweep of wins in the three morning stages to extend his lead to almost a minute. He measured his pace over rougher afternoon roads to lead tonight by 45.3sec.
Aware of the dangers on the rock-strewn gravel tracks, Meeke opted to carry two spare wheels in Citroën’s DS 3 instead of the usual one to guard against punctures. He needed neither but had to contend with different handling in the heavier car.
“I was thinking about protecting my lead,” he admitted. “I took two spares but it was difficult to manage as it changed the attitude and balance of the car on roads that were narrow and required quick changes of direction.”
Meeke benefited from good grip on clean roads thanks to a low start position, in contrast to road opener Ogier who endured the worst of the conditions as he swept the loose gravel.
“I did everything I could but it was a terrible afternoon for me. The grip was hard to handle and the rear of the car was off line,” said Volkswagen Polo R pilot Ogier, who repelled charging team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen by 3.1sec after winning the final special stage.
Mikkelsen abandoned yesterday’s cautious policy to climb to third. Two afternoon stage wins reduced the deficit to Ogier to just half a second before the Frenchman retaliated.
Dani Sordo could not repeat yesterday’s speed, the Spaniard frustrated by the lack of stability at the rear of his Hyundai i20. He slipped out of the top three and ended 31.6sec behind Mikkelsen in fourth.
Eric Camilli surged up to fifth in his Ford Fiesta RS, banishing memories of a troubled start to his rookie season, while Jari-Matti Latvala recovered to sixth in a Polo R after yesterday’s power steering problem.
Two broken driveshafts this morning cost Mads Østberg three minutes as he struggled with front-wheel drive only in his Fiesta RS. The Norwegian was seventh, with Martin Prokop, WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand and Nicolas Fuchs completing the leaderboard.
Thierry Neuville retired from fifth after running out of fuel in his i20, Stéphane Lefebvre exited sixth after hitting a rock and breaking a suspension arm on his DS 3 and Kevin Abbring retired for a second day after also striking a rock.
Four stages remain in Sunday’s final leg, including two passes through the iconic Fafe test where up to 75,000 fans are expected to throng the hillsides. Drivers face 67.32km of competition, with bonus points for the top three drivers in the final live TV Power Stage.