Just four stages stand between Kalle Rovanperä and his first triumph of 2023 after the Finn proved the driver to beat on leg two of Vodafone Rally de Portugal, the fifth event of this enthralling FIA World Rally Championship season.
Unyielding and unstoppable, the Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid star unleashed an onslaught of raw speed as he stormed to fastest times on five of the seven gruelling gravel stages alongside co-driver Jonne Halttunen.
What started as a modest lead of 10.7s overnight was transformed into a mighty advantage of almost one minute by close of play on the penultimate day.
Rovanperä, the defending world champion, launched his charge from the outset, more than quadrupling his lead before the mid-leg halt. He made further gains when the classic roads of Vieira do Minho and Amarante were repeated after service, widening his advantage further in rough and dusty conditions reminiscent of Safari Rally Kenya.
The 22-year-old, who is yet to win a rally so far in 2023, will enter Sunday’s deciding leg 57.5s ahead of Dani Sordo in a Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid.
“I don’t really feel today was so special,” said Rovanperä. “I lost my intercom on the last gravel stage and had a careful run through the final stage. Now we can look forward to tomorrow with a good lead.”
Sordo, starting his third event of the season, quickly diverted his attention to his chasing team-mates, Esapekka Lappi and Thierry Neuville.
Lappi closed in on the Spaniard early in the day, climbing from fifth to third overall on the first pass of Vieira do Minho. But the Finn’s pace faded in the afternoon and he was passed by Neuville, who finished a mere 2.3s ahead of him and 11.1s adrift of Sordo.
Pierre-Louis Loubet retired close to the finish of Amarante 1 when a heavy impact damaged his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid’s steering, allowing M-Sport Ford team-mate Ott Tänak to profit by seizing fifth overall. The Estonian dropped time with wheel damage on Friday and languishes 2m21.8s back from the lead after an off-pace day, which he completed with a handbrake issue on the Lousada superspecial.
Škoda-powered Oliver Solberg completed leg two in sixth overall and ahead in the FIA WRC2 category for Rally2 cars with Toksport team-mates Gus Greensmith and Andreas Mikkelsen following in seventh and eighth respectively.
Yohan Rossel is ninth overall in his PH Sport Citroën C3 Rally2 with Teemu Suninen completing the top 10 for Hyundai Motorsport N, one place ahead of WRC2 Challenger leader Marco Bulacia and Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s Josh McErlean.
Roope Korhonen holds first place in FIA WRC3, while Alexander Villaneuva leads the WRC Masters division.
The new Paredes stage is up first on Sunday’s deciding leg from 07:05 local time ahead of the first of two passes of the 11.18-kilomtre Fafe stage, featuring the iconic Pedra Sentada jump. Cabeceiras de Basto follows prior to a regroup in the town of Fafe and is run in an opposite direction to 2022. The repeat of Fafe forms the points-paying Power Stage from 12:15.