Schilke, WRC correspondent
Weather plays havoc in Portugal
After a morning that saw conditions that were very treacherous, the Vodafone Rally de Portugal organizers have elected to cancel the afternoon's final two stages due to “safety reasons”; earlier the final special stage (SS10) today was already shelved. The FIA World Rally Championship’s round four has not been kind to many of the drivers and teams. Most notably is the fact that Sebastien Loeb was out of action on day one due to a crash. This morning, both of the top Ford drivers found themselves in two separate ditches which could have ended their rally. Instead they can continue with a timed penalty.
At the midway break, the officials had to change the itinerary when a “car became stuck in a small water crossing on the road” which was between the sixth and seventh stages. That shut down SS7 and caused delays. Therefore the second pass of the short 16.18 km S. Bras de Alportel (SS10) was scratched. That left the 25.01 km SS8 and 25.15 km SS9 to contest before these two were cut from the itinerary.
Now with the second passes of all three tests canceled, that means only three stages count today, and all were won by Dani Sordo and co-driver Carlos Del Barrio for the MINI Prodrive WRC team, who finished the day 15th after a dismal start Thursday.
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen hold the overall lead in their Citroen DS3. If the two Finns manage to finish on Sunday, they will be the points leaders; however there is a long way to go before the finish line. The skies opened up last night prior to special stage four and continued to rain overnight which caused the conditions on the morning runs.
Hirvonen explained the conditions, “It’s not the first time we have had such difficult conditions, but what we were faced with this morning was fairly exceptional. Obviously, there was a lot of mud, but there was also a lot of fog. In some places, the visibility was so poor that you couldn’t even see the end of the corner! There were also many grip changes and so we had to drive slowly, sometimes in first or second gear. For the moment, we are in the lead. We need to keep going.”
The gap to second placed Evgeny Novikov sits at 36.3 seconds at the end of the shortened day. The M-Sport driver stayed out of trouble while the main Ford team found themselves in the weeds. More rain is in the forecast for tomorrow, so if Hirvonen has an issue, or is too slow in the conditions, Novikov will certainly be there to take his first overall lead in the WRC.
“It was very difficult out on the stages. It was raining, it was foggy, it was very slippery," observed Novikov.
“Everything is ok with the car and we’ll keep the same set-up. I’m feeling confident in the car and my times have been good. We just need to carry on the way we have been going. Maximum attack,” he added.
Mads Østberg has also been able to capitalize on the challenging conditions with third, only 5.5 seconds from the Russian.
“It has been a very difficult morning with very tricky conditions, that’s for sure!" exclaimed Østberg. "We have been trying to push but it is difficult with the fog, rain and mud. But ok we have had quite a clean run with no major problems and I think that is why we are in this position now.
“We did the whole last stage [SS7] with a left-rear puncture. We wanted to change it before the start but we were not allowed and we lost a lot of time there," added the Adapta Ford driver.