From Fafe To Loule, Via Lisbon
Round four of this year‘s WRC, Rally de Portugal is one of the season’s most popular events. A three-time winner of the event, Citroën Total World Rally Team will be looking to secure another victory here with its crews. Thanks to wins in Monte-Carlo and Mexico, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena start the Portuguese round as leaders of the Drivers’ World Championship standings. Runner-up in the last two rallies and second in the overall rankings, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen will be looking to underline their growing confidence in the DS3 WRC.
The spiritual coming together between the Portuguese fans and the WRC crews will start this Saturday 24 March, with a “Rally Sprint” organised close to Porto on a stage made famous by the Fafe jump. Two Citroën DS3 WRCs will be shared by the four Citroën Racing crews: Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen, Nasser Al- Attiyah/Giovanni Bernacchini and Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul.
Reconnaissance for the rally will begin on Monday in the Algarve, and the qualifying stage is due to be held on Wednesday morning. The Rally de Portugal will get start from Lisbon at lunchtime on Thursday. Day one will include a street stage in the capital, followed by three timed stages on gravel run in the evening. The rest of the weekend has a more conventional look to it, with three legs run on a clover-shaped route in the mountains of the Loulé region.
After Mexico, Rally de Portugal is this season’s second gravel rally. As the rally will be held on lower altitude roads than in Central America, drivers will be able to call upon all of the power offered by their 1.6-litre turbocharged direct injection engines.
“This is the first rally where we will really be able to gauge the relative strengths of the crews,” assessed Sébastien Loeb. “In Mexico, we saw that our rivals had made a significant step forward performance-wise at an event where they had not previously done that well. If the same is true in Portugal, then we're going to have a very close fight on our hands! As far as we’re concerned, our preparations for this rally have gone well. Our DS3 WRC has been quick on all surfaces since the start of the season and I think it will be no different in Portugal.”
Fourth in Monte-Carlo and runner-up in Sweden and Mexico, Mikko Hirvonen now lies second overall in the Drivers' World Championship, 16 points behind his team-mate. The Finn feels he is making progress in the DS3 WRC at each rally. “I feel confident for this rally. In Mexico, I managed to set some good times and was neck and neck with Seb on day one. I still have to work on adapting my driving style to the DS3 WRC,” admitted the Finn. “I tend to push too hard and end up getting the car too sideways. The engineers even said they were considering removing the handbrake! When I drive like that, I note that my times aren’t so good. So I need to work on that, but I think I’ll be even better in Portugal.”
By ensuring both cars finished the first three rallies of the season, Citroën Total World Rally Team has built up a healthy 38-point lead in the Manufacturers’ World Championship. Citroën will be looking to sustain its early season momentum at an event that it has won for the last three years.
Three Questions For… Sebastien Loeb
You are taking part in the “Fafe Rally Sprint” near Porto, this Saturday. How important is this event for you?
“I don’t know the famous Fafe stage, as the Portugal rally hasn’t gone through the Porto region since 2001. It’s great to go and see the many fans in the region, but I’d have preferred it if these stages had been included in the rally, as opposed to a stand-alone, promotional event which has no real sporting value. But anyway, I think it’ll be a very interesting new experience.”
Like last year, the rally is due to start on Wednesday with a street stage in Lisbon. And then in the evening, there are three night stages run on gravel. That sounds like one hell of a start!
“I think it’s good that the first day has been made into a proper leg. More so than elsewhere, it will be tricky to choose the right starting position. At night, kicked-up dust can stay in the air for ages. In conditions like that, is it better to have to sweep the loose gravel but enjoy decent visibility or have a clean racing line but run the risk of having to drive through dust clouds? Setting a good time in the qualifying stage won’t be enough. We’ll also need to analyse the weather conditions very carefully to make the right choice. One thing is for certain, however: an ‘average’ time and an ‘average’ starting position of around 7th or 8th place would be a pretty disastrous solution all round!”
The ability to choose tyres comes back into play at this rally for the gravel sections. You must be pleased after having requested this on many occasions…
“Yes, because the old rules jeopardised our safety. I remember having driven on muddy stages with hard tyres - it was terrifying! In addition to the 40 ‘hard’ Michelin Latitude Cross tyres, we can use up to 10 soft tyres. If it doesn’t rain, these extra tyres will be redundant. But if it does rain, they will enable us to avoid taking any unnecessary risks to stay on the road.”