Having secured their first World Championship win at the start of the month, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle are among the frontrunners once again in Portugal. On brand-new stages, they ended the first leg in second place overall. Mads Ã˜stberg and Jonas Andersson hold seventh position. In the third DS 3 WRC, Khalid Al Qassimi and Chris Patterson had to retire for the day before the start of the fourth stage. This year, Rally de Portugal has left the Algarve to set up base 550 kilometres further north. Centred around Porto, the rally has returned to a region that loves racing, with huge crowds lining the roads.
Abandoned since 2001, these stages are therefore totally unfamiliar to all the World Championship drivers. The conditions thus provided Kris Meeke with an opportunity to demonstrate his impressive ability to adapt to a situation.
Starting in fifth position, the Northern Irishman produced consistently strong performances in the morning loop to move into second overall. The very slippery road surface changed as the day wore on. Often becoming quicker, the lines were also dirtied by rocks pulled out as more cars came through the stages. In opting to go with soft tyres in the afternoon, he ended the leg in second place, eleven seconds behind the leader, Jari-Matti Latvala.
Second in the Driversâ€™ Championship, Mads Ã˜stberg had to contend with a much tougher starting position. Forced to sweep the loose gravel off the racing line, the Norwegian lost a lot of time on Ponte de Lima (SS2) and Viana do Castelo (SS4). On a less demanding road surface, he nonetheless set the fastest time on the 18 kilometre-long SS3! On the second loop, Mads confirmed his pace to end the day in seventh place, around twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate.
The third driver competing for CitroÃ«n Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team this weekend, Khalid Al Qassimi found himself stuck at the start of the fourth stage with a handbrake problem. The Abu Dhabi driver will rejoin the rally tomorrow.
In his DS 3 R5, StÃ©phane Lefebvre ended the opening leg in fourth position in the WRC2 standings. Increasingly close the stage-winning times, the Frenchman racked up further experience without making any mistakes.
In the FIA Junior WRC championship, the Frenchmen Quentin Gilbert and Terry Folb finished the day ahead of the Norwegian Ole-Christian Veiby. The three DS 3 R3s also dominated the WRC3 category.
On Saturday, the longest day of the rally will get underway at 7.30am. 165.40 kilometres of timed sections will be spread across three stages, each run two times, with service periods in Matosinhos at 1pm and 6.35pm.
Yves Matton (CitroÃ«n Racing Team Principal): â€œKris and Mads both had a very good day. With different difficulties due to their respective starting positions, they made the most of a reliable car in what were really tough conditions, especially on the second loop. Kris managed his race perfectly, even though tyre choice wasnâ€™t easy. Mads did more than hold his own given that he was second on the road. He pretty much matched SÃ©bastien Ogierâ€™s times. The aim is to keep doing the same thing, like in Argentina, and for both DS 3 WRCs to finish as high as possible.â€
Mads Ã˜stberg: â€œI really enjoyed these stages even though the conditions were difficult. I learned a lot by starting in second position on the road. Obviously, Iâ€™m not really pleased with the overall position, but this is where I expected to be at the end of the first day. The roads on tomorrowâ€™s stages should be better for us. We also made good tyre choices which leaves us with options for the rest of the rally.â€
Kris Meeke: â€œWe werenâ€™t really expecting the roads to change so much between the two runs. At the midday service, we had to take a gamble based on the data we had. In hindsight, if we did it all again, I think I would have gone for a slightly different set-up and tyres. We still managed to be pretty quick and consistent. You can see that in the overall standings! Tomorrow, weâ€™ll be tackling more new stages. Weâ€™ll need to keep up the same pace.â€
Khalid Al Qassimi: â€œWe had to retire due to a mechanical problem. The handbrake became stuck at the start of SS4. Iâ€™m really disappointed, but thatâ€™s part and parcel of racing. There were a lot of rocks on the stages. I tried to avoid them on SS2 and I took a few more risks on SS3. Thereâ€™s plenty of room for improvement, depending on the state of the roads.â€
StÃ©phane Lefebvre: â€œThe roads were very rough this afternoon, but we enjoyed ourselves in the DS 3 R5. The times we set were pretty good. We now lie fourth in the WRC2 category but this is just the first day of the rally. There is still a long way to go and weâ€™ll have to keep up the same pace.â€