Rally de Portugal is renowned as one of the most unpredictable and technically challenging events of the year.
As the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) returns to Europe, the M-Sport World Rally Team will be looking to make further progress at next week’s Vodafone Rally de Portugal. With both Mikko Hirvonen and Elfyn Evans growing in confidence, the team will be chasing a strong result.
Based in the Baixo Alentejo and Serra do Caldeirão hills north of Faro, Rally de Portugal is renowned as one of the most unpredictable and technically challenging events of the year.
Finding a consistent rhythm is paramount and the stages hide a multitude of hazards – concealed corners, tricky tree-lined bends and a constant risk of showers given the Algarve’s changeable weather.
The event is a challenge for any driver, but that has never stood in the way of Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen securing a good result. Having contested the event on seven previous occasions, the Finns have never finished outside of the top-five – with the exception of 2012 when their winning car was excluded on technical grounds.
At the previous outing in Mexico, Hirvonen looked at one behind the wheel of his Ford Fiesta RS WRC – fighting for the top positions before a technical issue put paid to his efforts – and is determined to come back fighting. Following some forward steps with the gravel set-up and a week-long research and development test in the UK, the M-Sport driver is full of confidence and will be aiming to fight for the podium on what has historically been one of his strongest WRC events.
In a change from the norm, next week’s fixture will mark the first familiar event of the year for Hirvonen’s younger teammate. Showcasing Ford and M-Sport’s ‘Ladder of Opportunity’ at its best, Evans has contested the event on two previous occasions – with the Ford Fiesta R2 in 2012, the Ford Fiesta RRC in 2013 – and will step-up to the Fiesta RS WRC next week.
Following a career-best fourth place in Mexico, Evans is showing real promise in what is a development year at the WRC’s highest level. Focused on the job in hand, the Welshman is determined to make it through all of the stages unscathed as he and co-driver Daniel Barritt look to reduce the gap to the leaders with another strong performance.
Mikko Hirvonen: “I would say that this is an event that I enjoy. It’s quite similar to Mexico in places. The route is really technical and there are a lot of corners over crests so precise pacenotes are really important.
“The weather can also play a big role here. Some years it is dry and dusty and really hard on the tyres, and other years it can be the muddiest event of the year! Personally, I hope it stays relatively dry so that we can make the most of our road position and really attack through the first day.
“The feeling with the Fiesta [RS WRC] is getting better and better so I hope that we can have a clean run and continue where we left off in Mexico. We want to be in the fight for the top positions, and that’s what we’ll be aiming for next week.”
Elfyn Evans: “This is the first familiar event of the year for me which definitely helps. We have a good proportion of the notes from previous years, and although there will still be some new sections, the majority of the recce will involve amending the existing notes which have evolved in the past 12 months.
“I think our approach will remain largely unchanged. We’ll certainly be a lot more comfortable on the stages and our familiarity of the event will make things easier, but we need to remember that this year is all about developing our skills at this level.
“Our main goal will be to get consistently closer to the guys at the head of the field. We’ve made good progress so far this year, and Portugal will provide us with the perfect opportunity to work on reducing that gap further.”
Additional M-Sport Drivers
M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta rally cars make up 49 per cent of this year’s Rally de Portugal. Forty-two Fiestas have been entered including six Ford Fiesta RS WRCs, five Ford Fiesta RRCs, two Ford Fiesta S2000s, 14 Ford Fiesta R5s and 15 Ford Fiesta R2s. M-Sport cars also make up 40 per cent of the WRC field and an impressive 80 per cent of the WRC 2 category.
Ott Tänak is back behind the wheel of a Fiesta RS WRC. This will be the Estonian’s fourth outing at the event, and he will be one to watch on what has been an impressive comeback to the WRC’s highest league. Also making a welcome return is Henning Solberg in a similar Fiesta RS WRC.
Following in Evans’ footsteps, Pontus Tidemand joins the M-Sport fold as he claims his prize for winning the 2013 FIA Junior World Rally Championship. Taking to the wheel of a Fiesta R5 for the first time in competition, the young Swede has good form in Portugal. Having contested the rally as part of the FIA WRC Academy and Junior WRC for the previous two years, Tidemand can boast a third and first place finish in the WRC support category and will be looking to challenge at the top of the WRC 2 rankings.
WRC 2 leader, Yuriy Protasov, is also back behind the wheel of the Fiesta R5. Following two victories in Monte-Carlo and Mexico, the Ukrainian has a strong lead in the championship standings and will be looking to hold onto that next week.
Also making a welcome return to the WRC 2 category – in M-Sport prepared Fiesta RRCs – are Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Subhan Aksa.