Crews had tackled three gravel stages to the north of Porto during the morning but it was a miserable start to the event for the Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Team with the loss of both Ott Tänak and Jari-Matti Latvala. The former clouted a rock, damaged the Yaris WRC’s cooling system and the engine suffered potentially terminal damage. Latvala succumbed to broken suspension.
Hayden Paddon, Kris Meeke and Dani Sordo each won a stage and Sordo, driving the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team i20 Coupe WRC, grabbed the overall advantage in the Ponte de Lima stage with his fastest time.
Meeke held second place, Paddon third and five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier defied his starting position as road sweeper to finish the loop in fourth place, just 7.3 seconds off the lead.
Ogier was handed the dubious task of opening the road in the Viana do Castelo special, but there was early drama when Tänak clouted a rock and ground to a halt with a high oil temperature after being the quickest of the first three drivers at the opening split after 4.67km. A flat-out Ogier set the target time of 15min 41.5sec and was able to beat Neuville by 0.6 seconds.
But road cleaning helped cars running behind and Paddon bounced back from missing three WRC rallies to set the fastest time and move into an outright lead of 1.5 seconds from Evans. Meeke, Sordo and Teemu Suninen rounded off the top five, but Latvala and Esapekka Lappi were off the pace somewhat in the two surviving Toyotas.
Pontus Tidemand sustained a flat rear-right tyre after 15km and ceded 1min 19sec seconds to Greensmith in the WRC 2 category. Stéphane Lefebvre beat Gus Greensmith to the fastest time as Pierre-Louis Loubet impressed with the third quickest time and Jusso Nordgren also lost over a minute.
The 18.11km of the Caminha stage followed. Ogier managed to beat Neuville by a tenth of a second. Meeke went on to beat Ogier by 1.1 seconds to claim the fastest time and move 1.6 seconds ahead of Paddon in the overall standings. But there was more misery for Toyota, when Latvala ground to a halt with front-right suspension damage to his Yaris WRC. Two of the team’s cars were already out of the day’s action.
Several drivers, including Paddon and Sordo, had conserved their tyres for the longer Ponte de Lima special of 27.54km. Ogier acted as the road sweeper and posted the target of 19min 17.3ec. It was enough to edge another three-tenths of a second ahead of Neuville.
Lappi complained about a lack of grip, Meeke lost his usual rhythm and that paved the way for Sordo to win the stage and snatch the outright lead heading back to Matosinhos for the regroup and midday service. It had been a dramatic morning in Northern Portugal.