Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle produced a near-perfect display to end the opening day of Rally de Portugal more than thirty seconds clear of their closest challengers. Abu Dhabi Total WRT team mates Stéphane Lefebvre and Gabin Moreau were sixth and Khalid Al Qassimi and Chris Patterson ended the day in sixteenth position.
Following Thursday evening’s ceremonial start in front of the Castelo de Guimarães, the crews contested the opening super special stage on the Lousada rallycross circuit.
More than five months after his last gravel rally, Kris Meeke was fastest over the Ponte de Lima and Caminha stages (SS2 and SS3) to grab and then consolidate the overall rally lead. The Northern Irishman then increased his lead on Viana do Castelo to head back to Porto some 11.5s clear of Sébastien Ogier. Stéphane Lefebvre was ninth overall having lost around twenty seconds on SS3 due to a loose tyre.
After the midday service, the cars completed second runs on the three stages. Unlike most of their rivals, the Abu Dhabi Total WRT drivers opted to go with hard compound Michelin tyres.
The second run on Ponte di Lima (SS5) saw a series of incidents, including a heavy crash for Hayden Paddon that left his car burnt out and led to the breakout of a fire in the surrounding forest. Ott Tanak also crashed out of the rally. Jari-Matti Latvala lost 45 seconds when his VW Polo struck a hole in the same stage which broke the power steering.
Unsurprisingly, the stage was cancelled before Kris Meeke came through, but he was later handed the stage-winning time by the stewards based on his run in the morning loop.
Taking full advantage of his tyre choice, Kris set the fastest times on the next two stages to extend his lead to over half a minute. Stéphane Lefebvre benefited from racing incidents, seventh after SS5, he claimed another place to grab sixth position.
The day ended in a festive atmosphere, in front of thousands of spectators gathered in the streets of Porto. The crews had to complete two runs on a stage held on the paved streets of the Portuguese city. The standings remained unchanged, Kris Meeke ending the day ahead of Ogier, Sordo, Mikkelsen, Neuville and Lefebvre. Particularly delighted with the performances of his team-mates, Khalid Al Qassimi ended the leg in 16th position after having made up five places in the afternoon.
Kris Meeke said: “I’m very pleased at the end of this day, we were quick from start to finish. Perhaps spending the last few months away from the rallies has just whetted my appetite! We made the right call on tyre choice for the afternoon loop. After SS5 was cancelled, we just drove slowly through the stage and there was a really nasty section where Hayden went off. Fortunately, I had set a good time this morning and the time awarded by the stewards didn’t penalise me. The flip side of our strategy was being a little bit less comfortable with the hard tyres on the street stages in Porto, but it was still the best decision for the loop overall. I wasn’t expecting to finish the day with such a big lead. Having said that, it’s only Friday and there’s still a long way to go! I’m going to keep driving the same way and we’ll see where we are come Sunday…”
On to Day 2 - a case of fingers, toes and everything else crossed, and don’t walk under any ladders or kick any black cats.
OVERALL STANDINGS AFTER DAY 1:
1, Meeke / Nagle (DS 3 WRC) 1:28:53.3
2, Ogier / Ingrassia (VW Polo-R WRC) +31.9
3, Sordo / Marti (Hyundai i20 WRC) +37.3
4, Mikkelsen / Jaeger (VW Polo-R WRC) +52.3
5, Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +1:12.2
6, Lefebvre / Moreau (DS 3 WRC) +1:33.5
7, Ostberg / Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:46.0
8, Camilli / Klinger (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:49.7
9, Latvala / Anttila (VW Polo-R WRC) +3:50.9
10, Prokop / Tomanek (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +4:06.4