The Briton, returning to the WRC after missing the previous two rounds, claimed the lead by winning yesterday’s morning opening speed test. He was fastest in four more stage to head world championship leader Sébastien Ogier by 31.9sec with two days remaining.
Hayden Paddon, winner of the previous round in Argentina, and Ott Tänak provided the drama. Both rolled at the same place this afternoon and their cars caught fire, fierce flames reducing Paddon’s car to a shell in minutes. Both drivers and co-drivers were unhurt.
Yesterday’s morning two stage wins enabled Meeke to build a 11.5sec lead in his Citroën’s DS 3 over Ogier, fastest in Thursday night’s curtain-raising test. As the gravel roads became heavily rutted, he stretched his lead to 35.2sec in the repeat pass, before Ogier narrowed the gap in the final two asphalt street tests in Porto.
Road opener Ogier had the worst of the conditions as he cleaned the gravel in his Volkswagen Polo R to leave better grip for others. An inspired Dani Sordo demoted the Frenchman from second before a front left puncture cost 10 sec and the Spaniard dropped 5.4sec behind in his Hyundai i20.
A cautious approach paid dividends for Andreas Mikkelsen who was fourth in a Polo R, ahead of Thierry Neuville, who climbed the order after a cautious start. Stéphane Lefebvre was sixth despite a puncture in his DS 3.
Mads Østberg had difficulty downshifting his Ford Fiesta RS but improvements enabled the Norwegian to climb to seventh, with team-mate Eric Camilli eighth.
Jari-Matti Latvala held fourth despite a set-up that was too stiff for the conditions. However, the Finn hit a hole and broke his Polo R’s power steering, dropping more than three minutes wrestling it through the remaining stages. He finished 1.1sec ahead of WRC 2 leader Pontus Tidemand
The afternoon’s opening stage was cancelled after the crashes of Paddon and Tänak. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard could only save their crash helmets from the burning wreckage, while locals helped Tänak fight the flames with a hose pipe to save his car.
The only other major retirement was Kevin Abbring, sidelined with a broken steering arm after clipping a bank.
Saturday’s leg is the longest of the weekend. Competitors cover two identical loops of three stages, east of the rally base of Matosinhos, totalling 165.28km.