Sébastien Ogier ended the penultimate leg with a 16.8sec advantage over Thierry Neuville after leader Ott Tänak’s hopes of a maiden FIA World Rally Championship win ended when he hit a bank.
Remarkably reigning WRC champion Ogier became the seventh different driver to lead this topsy-turvy encounter on rough dirt roads in the north of the country.
He has just four speed tests in which to fend off Neuville on Sunday to equal Markku Alen’s record of five Portuguese victories.
M-Sport Ford Fiesta team-mates Tänak and Ogier shared the honours with a win each in the opening two special stages as the Estonian stretched his advantage to 6.3sec
But he suffered brake and suspension damage in the impact and dropped nearly 90sec.
New leader Ogier stretched his advantage over Neuville to 23.0sec before the Belgian retaliated in the final test to give himself a glimmer of hope in his Hyundai i20 Coupe.
Ogier said: “I didn’t push hard in the final stage because it was rough at the end and Thierry had a good run. I think I managed my tyres too much, maybe I was a bit too cautious. I’m happy with the gap I have but we still have to push tomorrow as Thierry will fight to the end.”
Having modified his driving style yesterday to match the conditions, Neuville did so again today. “I was driving too sideways so I went back to my normal rhythm,” he said.
Dani Sordo was third, more than half a minute behind team-mate Neuville. He struggled with his i20’s handling and was lucky to finish the final stage with a badly damaged rear wheel.
Tänak recovered to fourth after passing Craig Breen’s Citroën C3 in the final test. A tyre choice mistake left the Irishman with badly worn rear rubber and he spun. The gap is 2.8sec.
Elfyn Evans completed the top six in a Fiesta
The Welshman had a puncture and a broken damper. B he ended almost 30sec clear of Finn Juho Hänninen, who dropped nearly a minute when his Toyota Yaris stopped in the penultimate test.
Sunday’s finale is centred around the legendary Fafe roads. After an opening pass through the test, competitors drive two new stages. After that they return for the final live TV Power Stage. The four tests cover 42.93km.
Portugal after SS15 – 1.Ogier 3:15m24.6, 2.Neuville +16.8s, 3.Sordo +51.3s, 4.Tanak +1m29.6s, 5.Breen +1m32.4s. Lappi suspension #WRC
— WRC (@OfficialWRC) May 20, 2017