The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford rally team extended their lead over the Citroen Junior team in the FIA World Rally Championship manufacturer standings despite a final day drama which saw Matthew Wilson retire from the rally on the penultimate stage. Henning Solberg kept up his challenge in the driver standings, finishing the Rally de Portugal in fifth, and earning valuable points for the Stobart team as they consolidate their position.

The fourth round of the WRC proved to be one of the toughest races of the season so far with many drivers getting caught out on the exceptionally challenging stages. Road conditions throughout the weekend favoured those starting further down the field as much of the loose surface was cleared by the front runners.

Dust played a big part in the proceedings as many crews struggled in the poor visibility and concentration levels were tested to the limit by the varying pace of the stages, which moved from fast to slow and back again, high in the hills above the Portuguese tourist resort of Faro.

Both Wilson and Solberg managed to avoid the pitfalls that caught out other crews until the penultimate stage of the rally when Wilson, chasing his second top-five finish in a row, slid off the road and rolled his Ford Focus RS 14.3kms into the 16.23km SS17 Bras Alportel 2 test. The young Briton, and co-driver Scott Martin, managed to get the car back on the road but in doing so burnt out the clutch and the pair were forced out of the rally.

His accident elevated team mate Solberg to fifth place overall but dealt a blow to the Stobart squadís hopes of closing the gap on the teams above them in the manufacturer standings.

The event started and finished in the Algarve Stadium which is more used to hosting top football matches than WRC stages. But a huge crowd of fans turned out to cheer on the crews as they tackled the specially constructed 2.2km Super Special stage in the centre of the arena. And it was Solberg who thrilled the thousands looking on as he took victory on Thursday nightís opening test and led a WRC event for the very first time.

Both crews dropped down the standings at the start of day one as tactical driving came into play over the 136kms of stages in the hills to the north of the service park. Solberg suffered from an early brake issue which was resolved by the mechanics in the first service of the day while Wilson enjoyed six trouble-free stages ending the day perfectly positioned to start a charge up the leaderboard on day two.

Between them the Stobart drivers gained five places in the opening stages of the second day to move into an excellent position overall and at the end of the day were lying in fifth and sixth places respectively with Solberg trailing his team mate by less than a second.

An early visibility problem on the final day held up the Norwegian but a double-points haul looked to be on the cards for the team until Wilson crashed out metres from the end of the penultimate stage. But Solberg got his car safely through the final Super Special stage back in the Algarve Stadium and now lies fourth equal in the driversí standings alongside brother Petter. Wilson, however, remains in sixth place, six points behind his team mate despite missing out on the points for the first time this year.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
ďIím very pleased with this result, it give us more important points for the driversí championship and also for the Stobart team. But Iím not happy about the way it happened and itís a real shame for Matthew. This rally wasnít easy as the stages are very tricky with differing sections and itís so hard to get a nice flow and rhythm in some of the stages. We tried to battle with him this morning but it was over before it had even begun. Our screen misted up badly and we had to stop for a while to let it clear; but the dust was also a lot worse on the last day, very patchy and inconsistent. Generally it was a good rally and we had a fantastic road position during the second day. We really used this to our advantage and put in some competitive times.Ē

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
ďTo finish the rally like this is a huge disappointment. We had put in a really encouraging performance this week and our times and consistency have improved a lot in the last two rallies so for this to happen is a big set back to my confidence. The brake pedal felt a bit soft at the start of the stage but then seemed to be ok. But going into a slow corner I couldnít brake enough. We slid off sideways, rolled over but managed to get back on the road. But the clutch had burnt out and after another kilometre we had no drive and that was our rally over.Ē

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
ďItís a very disappointing way to end the rally for Matthew after such a strong performance all weekend. He has demonstrated on the last two events that as well as driving faster he has also become more consistent and itís a real shame that heís had to retire just a few hundred metres from the end of the last main stage. Henning, however, has put in a very solid drive and has consolidated his position in the driversí championship. He has done a great job on this difficult event and has again collected more points for the Stobart team.Ē

Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler said:
ďI know how hard Matthew and Scott have prepared for this event and I really am gutted for them. Iíve watched them improve over the last few events and itís great to see them now running at a different level. But to retire within the last few kilometres of competitive distance is just not what they deserve. Henning has kept a clear head though and again heís had a mistake-free rally, set some really strong times and strengthened both his, and the Stobart teamís, position in both championships. This has been one of our strongest starts to the manufacturer championship.Ē

Final Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena (FRA) CitroŽn C4 3h53m13.1s
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen(FIN) Ford Focus RS +24.3s
3. D Sordo/M Marti (ESP) CitroŽn C4 +1m45.4s
4. P Solberg/P Mills (NOR) CitroŽn Xsara +2m44.6s
5. H Solberg/C Menkerud (NOR) Ford Focus RS +5m46.3s
6. Mads Ostberg/O Unnerud(NOR) Subaru Impreza +6m20.8s
7. F Villagra/J Diaz (ARG) Ford Focus RS +12m59.5s
8. K Al Qassimi/M Orr (UAE) Ford Focus RS +18m21.7s
9. A Araujo/M Ramalho (POR) Mitsubishi Lancer +22m18.5s
10. M Prokop/J Tomanek (CZ) Mitsubishi Lancer +23m25.6s

FIA WRC manufacturer standings
1. Citroen Total WRT - 64 2. BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT - 40 3. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford - 27 4. Citroen Junior Rally Team - 11 5. Munchiís Ford WRT - 7

FIA WRC driver standings
1. S Loeb - 40 2. M Hirvonen - 30 3. D Sordo - 23 4=. H Solberg -14
4=. P Solberg - 14 6. M Wilson - 8 7. J-M Latvala - 6 8-=. C Atkinson - 4

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