The last three days…
The Matosinhos-based event included three days of flat-out rally action in the Portuguese hills inland from the Atlantic coast. Summer arrived just in time for the start of the rally, with the loose gravel roads baking in temperatures which climbed into the high 30 degrees Celsius.
Inside the Rhys Yates Rallying ŠKODA Fabia R5, those temperatures climbed north of 60 degrees to provide one of the most hostile and difficult driving environments of the season.
Despite tough conditions for the crews and the cars, Rhys and co-driver James Morgan made exceptional progress to set career-best times for the Chesterfield driver.
Vodafone Rally de Portugal is well known as one of the toughest, technical and most complicated rounds of the World Rally Championships season. The roads twist and turn their way through the mountains north and south of the beautiful coastal city of Porto. As well as deceptive curves and corners over blind crests, this event brings sensational speed as the cars fly over some of the season’s fastest and most spectacular jumps.
And Rhys conquered them all except for the final test on Friday. Having suffered two punctures on the penultimate stage on the opening day, and only carrying one spare wheel, Rhys was forced to retire from day one.
Saturday and Sunday, however, delivered a dream drive as the times tumbled and Rhys pushed, progressed and performed perfectly to slash the gap to the world championship regulars, drivers who all enjoy far more experience than him.
In the mid sections of the final stage on Saturday – the 37.60-kilometre (23.36 miles) Amarante test – Rhys’ #64 Skoda was just fractions of a second slower than the fastest driver in his class in the world, Finland’s Kalle Rovanperä (a factory ŠKODA driver who was using the improved, updated and all-new Fabia R5 evo) but fasterthan Citroën’s Norwegian superstar – and previous outright Rally Portugal winner Mads Østberg.
He continued that stunning form through Sunday with top five times on four of the five tests, including an amazing fastest split time in the final stage. Had Sunday been a standalone rally, Rhys would have finished fourth – just 25 seconds behind the fastest driver.
Ultimately, Rhys and James were classified 15thin WRC 2 at the end of the event having collected the necessary time penalties for missing the final stage on Friday.
Vodafone Rally de Portugal was Rhys’s ninth WRC start and his fourth of the season following outings in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Corsica.
“I’ve never felt as good in a rally car as I did on this event. The feeling was really coming through Friday and then on Saturday the speed was building until that final stage, I just felt something click.
“I wasn’t pushing the car too hard, we weren’t taking risks, but everything just flowed and felt really natural. Honestly, I’ve never had that feeling before and I’ve never worked the car like that or carried so much speed through the corners.
“I came to this year to learn lessons and I really, really learned here. Time in the car is so important and we’ve had plenty of that here and when you feel comfortable, you trust the notes, everything works and you can push harder.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve not gone mad or anything like that, just solid progress.
“OK, I’m disappointed about the punctures on Friday, but I’ll be honest and say I think that actually helped me. If I’d been running third or fourth [overall in the category] then I’d have gone into Amarante a little bit tense and nervous and not wanting to make a mistake that might spoil the result.
“With the hope of a result gone, that pressure wasn’t there and I could drive with much more freedom. In one sector we were just six-tenths of a second slower than Rovanperä and faster than Østberg. This is the feeling I’ve been waiting for. And then to actually make a fastest sector time on Sunday was really special!
“Sunday just kept getting better and better; third fastest in one stage, fourth in another and we did that carrying two spare wheels (which means an extra 25 kilos) as a precaution when most of our rivals only had one.
“Overall Portugal has been one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve never seen so many fans on the roads and they’ve all be so, so fantastic – just the best. Physically, it’s been hard work with the heat in the car, but that’s what I work for in the training between the events – it’s great to see the effort from everybody paying off.”
Hot, really hot then even hotter before it all went a bit cloudy as some mist rolled in off the Atlantic on Sunday morning. Temperatures between 18 and 37 degrees.