Tänak overcomes an unfavorable starting position and various issues to secure his third victory of the season at Rally de Portugal

    Following two South American gravel rallies, the FIA World Rally Championship returned to Europe for the final rally of the first half of the season—Round 7: Rally de Portugal. The first European gravel event of the season, Rally de Portugal was formerly said to highlight a rally car’s true performance, because it included elements of various gravel rallies and because it possessed a good balance of stages. In addition, Rally de Portugal was also known for having some of the most typical surface conditions of any gravel rally; however, 2018 proved this assumption to be false. Parts of the road surface were in such poor condition that it would have been more accurate to describe them as “rough gravel.” Large stones were dug up from the ground, severely damaging the rally cars. The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team’s Yaris WRCs had been set up with the expectation of comparatively smooth surface conditions; Ott Tänak retired on Day Two after suffering damage from stones, while Jari-Matti Latvala was also forced to retire for the day. Esapekka Lappi was the team’s best performer, finishing in fourth place overall. It turned out to be an extremely difficult event for the team; however, as a result of this disappointment, the team learned to better anticipate changes in road surface conditions.

    A new method of carrying spare tires optimizes weight distribution

    This year marked the third appearance at the Rally de Portugal for TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team, and the team were determined to win. Before the rally, it had conducted tests in the south of Portugal and made improvements, focusing on the suspension; as a result, the Yaris WRC had evolved into a car that responded to driver input better than ever before. In addition, the team had also experimented at the tests with carrying spare tires in a new manner. Each spare tire is incredibly heavy, weighing approximately 25 kilograms. Previously, they were placed on their sides behind the seats, with care being taken to place them as low as possible in order to lower the car’s center of gravity. In the pre-event test, however, the team experimented with carrying the spare tires in an upright position. Although this raised the car’s center of gravity, the tire could be positioned closer to its center, and this helped to minimize the yaw moment of inertia. This followed the same logic as a mid-engine layout, where the heavy engine is placed as close to the center of a car as possible in order to increase driving performance.

    However, in order to stand the spare tires upright, special stays were needed. For this reason, the team used the five-axis processing machine of DMG MORI, one of its partner companies, and machined these complex stays from aluminum in an extremely short time frame. The stay fitted the roll cage perfectly, and enabled the tires to be secured firmly. Following the tests, Tänak and Meeke chose to carry the spare tires in an upright position, while Latvala opted to use the same, side-on position as before. Increasing the variety of choices in this way enabled the weight distribution of the Yaris WRC to be better tailored to each driver.

    Despite an unfavorable starting order, Tänak sets a series of fastest times to lead the rally

    At the start of the rally, the TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team drivers continued to feel good about their cars. Tänak set the fastest times in two Special Stages at the beginning of Day One to lead the rally. As a result of his victory at the previous rally, Rally Chile, Tänak had risen to second in the drivers’ championship; this meant that he was second in the starting order in Portugal, and he was forced to negotiate slippery surfaces covered with loose gravel. Despite this disadvantage, however, Tänak recorded successive fastest times. In contrast to his championship rivals—who were first and third in the running order, and who both struggled on the loose gravel—Tänak sped through the opening stages, steadily extending his lead at the top of the rally standings.

    “The car feels really good,” Tänak commented. “I am able to drive with confidence.” But it was not only Tänak who performed superbly. Although he was further down the running order, Latvala also set strong times and finished Day One in second place overall, 17.3 seconds behind his teammate. Kris Meeke, too, was third, just 5.5 seconds behind Latvala, as the Yaris WRCs secured a clean sweep of the top positions. The results reflected the drivers’ confidence in their cars.

    Team Principal Tommi Mäkinen’s advice helps overcome brake issues

    On Day Two of Rally de Portugal, the team faced several unexpected issues. On SS8, the opening stage of the day, Tänak damaged the brake lines on his Yaris WRC; this resulted in reduced braking force and he lost time as a consequence. After the stage, Tänak communicated with the team over the radio and attempted to repair the problem himself. While he succeeded in repairing the damage to the brake lines, he was unable to extract all the air that had entered the lines. For this reason, even when he stepped on the brake pedal, the brakes did not provide full braking force or feel. Yet Tänak was forced to drive the next stage in this condition.

    Team Principal Tommi Mäkinen heard Tänak commenting over the radio that he was unhappy with his braking; Mäkinen drew on his long experience as a driver to provide advice to Tänak via his engineer: “If you step on the brake pedal multiple times, the air will be pushed into the brake lines, and you should be able to feel brake feedback from the pedal.” Tänak followed Mäkinen’s advice and stepped on the brake pedal multiple times with his left foot, while continuing to drive at full speed. As he did so, the braking force returned, and he was able to record the second fastest time on the stage. Having overcome his predicament, Tänak managed to hold on to the rally lead.

    Latvala suffers unforeseen suspension trouble

    Latvala, meanwhile, maintained his tremendous run of form. He secured two stage wins on the morning of Day Two, and narrowed the gap to Tänak in first to 5.1 seconds. Latvala had struggled for much of the first half of the 2019 season; however, he had seized the opportunity to regain form at the last rally in Chile, and he finally recovered his true speed in Portugal. All the pieces of the jigsaw had fallen into place, and it seemed as if he was certain of at least a podium finish; however, his Yaris WRC encountered suspension trouble in the afternoon of Day Two—the dampers had been damaged. Latvala somehow managed to guide his car to the end of the stage, despite not being in full control, but the damage to his suspension was so severe that it was impossible to continue. Before the final stage of Day Two, Latvala retired for the day, so giving up any chance of overall victory.

    Tänak completely repaired his brake during the day service, and proceeded to set the fastest time in the first SS of the afternoon. However, the Estonian also encountered issues with his suspension. On SS13, the final stage of Day Two, Tänak had been driving fastest of all until midway through the stage, when he sensed something unusual. He altered his driving style so that he put less stress on his Yaris WRC, and managed to finish the stage. Tänak lost some time, but he was able to retain the rally lead, in part because the issue had struck on the final stage of the day. With less luck, however, he could well have been forced to retire like Latvala. It was an incredibly serious situation.

    The road surfaces on Day Two were in extremely poor condition, and there was a high likelihood that the load on the dampers would be greater than expected. At the very least, the data proves that the problems were not a result of driver error. Nevertheless, the team did not encounter suspension issues in Argentina, where some of the road surfaces were extremely rough, nor did any problems occur in the pre-event tests. This demonstrates just how poor the roads at this year’s Rally de Portugal were. But what, exactly, was behind these problems? The team immediately set about looking for the cause and, after the rally had finished, started analyzing and implementing measures at its factory. It is probable that the roads at Rally Italia Sardegna, which takes place in just a week’s time, will be in a similarly poor condition. It is vital that the team do everything in their power to ensure the problem is resolved by then.

    Team mechanics repair the damage to Latvala’s Yaris WRC

    After retiring for the day, Latvala’s Yaris WRC was transported to the service area. The car had sustained greater damage than expected. The spring was no longer securely attached due to the damper damage, and holes had been created in the surrounding metal body panels. The team mechanics started making major repairs, which included welding, and continued working deep into the night; they succeeded in returning the car to almost perfect condition. When the car left the service area, the spectators who had been watching the repair works burst into cheers and applause for the mechanics. Latvala had fallen to 11th in the rally standings, but the outstanding work of the mechanics meant he was able to return to battle.

    Although the Yaris WRCs no longer occupied the top three positions, at the start of the final day, Tänak still led the rally with Meeke in second place—the team had defended the top two places. However, ace drivers from rival teams were in hot pursuit of Meeke, and there was no way he could relax. For this reason, the Briton continued to attack and set the fastest time on SS16, the first stage of Day Three. The gap to Tänak in first place was now down to just 2.4 seconds. Meeke appeared to be enjoying the close battle with his teammate, declaring: “The car feels better than ever before. I am able to drive with confidence and joy.” But Meeke spun on SS19, the penultimate stage of the rally; he lost significant time and dropped to third overall. Then, on the final stage SS20, his front right wheel hit a tree stump hidden in the grass of an inside corner; the shock forced his wheel to point outwards, and made it impossible to continue. Despite having a first podium finish in his grasp since joining the team, Meeke lost everything.
    Meeke said with great disappointment: “In a right-hand corner there was a tree stump in the grass on the inside. I didn’t have it in my notes and I caught it with the steering wheel open. It was completely my mistake. I’m gutted for the team because we’d had such a strong rally.”

    Possessing speed but lacking strength, the team experience first-hand the need for further development

    The TOYOTA GAZOO Racing World Rally Team had finished Day One in the top three positions. Yet, at the end of the rally, only Tänak was left standing on the podium—it was a complete turnaround. The team’s disappointment was all the greater because they had hoped for so much. Nevertheless, this was the team’s third victory of the season, and the fact that they had won Rally de Portugal despite their previous struggles here was incredibly meaningful.

    According to Tänak: “It’s been a long and very tough weekend, definitely the hardest win I’ve ever had.” Indeed, it was by no means an easy victory. Despite the disadvantage of starting second in the running order, Tänak set successive fastest times and finished the day in the overall lead—and this showed the Yaris WRC possessed the necessary speed. However, he lost a large portion of his lead due to issues with his brakes and dampers—and unless the team builds a far stronger car, the drivers will not be able to attack with peace of mind. In securing victory, the team again learned many lessons in Portugal. Heading into the second half of the season, development will be further strengthened: the goal is to build a car that is both fast and strong.

    Pos Driver Co-Driver Vehicle Time
    1 Ott Tänak Martin Järveoja Toyota Yaris WRC 3h20m22.8s
    2 Thierry Neuville Nicolas Gilsoul Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC +15.9s
    3 Sebastien Ogier Julien Ingrassia Citroën C3 WRC +57.1s
    4 Teemu Suninen Marko Salminen Ford Fiesta WRC +2m41.5s
    5 Elfyn Evans Scott Martin Ford Fiesta WRC +7m08.3s
    6 Kalle Rovanperä Jonne Halttunen Skoda Fabia R5 Evo +10m34.2s
    7 Jari-Matti Latvala Miikka Anttila Toyota Yaris WRC +11m28.2s
    8 Jan Kopecky Pavel Dresler Skoda Fabia R5 Evo +11m41.9s
    9 Pierre-Louis Loubet Vincent Landais Skoda Fabia R5 +12m46.3s
    10 Emil Bergkvist Patrik Barth Ford Fiesta R5 +14m28.4s
    Retired Kris Meeke Seb Marshall Toyota Yaris WRC Retired