As the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) returns to Europe for the 2013 Vodafone Rally de Portugal next week, the field will see six Qatari-liveried Ford Fiestas thrown into the mix as Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville are joined by Dutchman Dennis Kuipers and reigning FIA WRC Academy champion, Elfyn Evans.
Known as the first ‘true’ test of the year, Rally de Portugal’s abrasive stages combine open roads with more technical sections of narrow, twisting corners. Although largely centred in the popular Algarve region, Friday will see the WRC circus venture north to Lisbon for a crowd-packed super special in the capital’s historic centre.
Qatar M-Sport will also be hoping that practice makes perfect as Østberg, Novikov, Al-Attiyah and Neuville contest the non-championship Fafe Rally Sprint this weekend. Renowned for attracting huge crowds in the north of the country, the Qatari foursome will use the extra seat time to gain further knowledge of the Portuguese stages whilst entertaining the hundreds of thousands of adoring fans expected to line the stage.
A spring time Rally de Portugal can often throw up a challenge or two, but that is something the M-Sport squad seems to thrive on – Østberg and Novikov leading a clean sweep of the podium for the Cumbrian outfit at the event last year. Needless to say, Østberg will be out to defend his maiden WRC victory next week and, if his performance in Mexico is anything to go by, he’ll be a real contender for the win.
Away from the traditionally sun-soaked stages, Østberg spent the downtime between Mexico and Portugal attempting to break into the record books at a ski slope in Trysil, Norway. Launching his Ford Fiesta RS WRC some 60 meters off a ramp constructed entirely of snow, the 25-year-old landed the longest jump ever recorded by a rally car on the frozen surface.
Speaking of record books, it was at Rally de Portugal last year that team mate Novikov claimed another first in the WRC. Securing a career-best second place, the Muscovite became both the first Russian and youngest ever driver to stand on a WRC podium.
Keen to put this year’s misfortunes behind him, Novikov will be hoping to replicate last year’s impressive performance and translate his clear pace into a strong haul of points next week.
When it comes to impressive performances, Al-Attiyah’s challenge in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship is just that. In a campaign to take his ninth title from the series, the Qatari claimed another dominant victory at the Kuwait International Rally last week to secure maximum points from both opening rounds.
With his confidence high, Al-Attiyah will be looking to continue his strong showing for the Qatar World Rally Team as he returns to the event which delivered his best ever performance in the world series – fourth place overall in 2012.
Following his maiden WRC podium last month, fellow Qatar World Rally Team driver Neuville is also full of confidence – something he’ll be hoping proves fruitful again next week.
When not rallying, Neuville is never far from competitive motorsport. Following the team’s voyage to Central America, Belgium’s latest protégé returned to his homeland where he was running in a comfortable fourth place as part of the Polaris RZR Cup – an off-road buggy series.
With Finn Juho Hänninen unable to contest Rally de Portugal due to personal reasons, car number 15 will be piloted by Dutchman Kuipers. Making a welcome return to the WRC, Kuipers is well versed when it comes to M-Sport’s Fiesta RS WRC. Contesting the event last year, he secured a creditable sixth place overall.
Kuipers also holds the record for the best ever result for a Dutch driver when he piloted a similar Fiesta RS WRC to fifth place at the 2011 Rallye de France Alsace. Despite not contesting a gravel event in over a year, Kuipers will be a contender for points next week.
Elsewhere in the WRC 2 category, Welshman Evans will be reaping the rewards of winning the 2012 FIA WRC Academy as he takes to the wheel of a Qatari-liveried Ford Fiesta RRC. Following a dominant performance in the FIA’s junior series, the youngster will be a real challenger amongst the front runners.
Despite limited testing with M-Sport’s regional specification Fiesta, the Welshman has played a significant role in the testing and development of the all-new Ford Fiesta R5. Travelling to mainland Europe last month, Evans tested the new model on both asphalt and gravel and is thus well versed when it comes to M-Sport’s higher specification machinery.
Mads Østberg said:
“It’s certainly possible to replicate our good result from last year. We have had a really good test this week and looking back at our performance in Mexico, I know we have the pace to fight for the top positions. Of course Portugal is a little different to Mexico, but there are still a lot of experiences that we can carry forward and I am confident that we will cope well with the challenges ahead.
“This rally is quite rough so you need to ensure that you really look after the car and the tyres. The long stages are always a challenge too and, as we saw last year, the weather can also play a key role. Needless to say, I want to defend last year’s result. We’re hungry for victory and I want to win.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“We will see if we can achieve a good result like last year, but as always it all depends on a lot of different things. As we saw last year, this spring-time event can bring some very tricky weather conditions! I hope this will be the case again because I really enjoy those tricky conditions.
“We tested yesterday in some quite slippery and wet conditions, so if we do get some rain next week then we should be well set-up. We learnt a lot and got about 200 km under our belt which is all good preparation.”
Nasser Al-Attiyah said:
“I am a big fan of this event. It wasn’t on my original programme, but when the opportunity became available Malcolm [Wilson] and my manager made it happen. The atmosphere from the spectators is always fantastic and I think that’s why a lot of drivers travel to this event.
“I have good memories from this rally as it is where I recorded my best ever result in the WRC – fourth place overall last year. We had a great run in Mexico and I hope we can keep the momentum going for another good result here.
“I just want to enjoy the event and drive well in front of the fans. But I think we could well see one of my team mates really challenging for victory!”
Thierry Neuville said:
“We had perfect conditions during the test – humid and wet in the morning and dry in the afternoon – so I’m confident of another good result next week. We made a few changes to the car from what we had in Mexico and it feels really good.
“People often say that this is the first ‘conventional’ event of the season, but that’s not to say it’s not without its challenges. The long stage on Sunday will be a big test for the crews, but first we need to get there. With no midday service on Friday we’ll need to play a clever game and ensure we look after the car and tyres. Strategy will play a key role for sure.
“Our results in Sweden and Mexcico mean that we are feeling confident, but we can’t let that take over. We are still learning but I would hope that we can secure a fifth or fourth position next week.”
Dennis Kuipers said:
“It was a late decision, but I am really excited about this opportunity and can’t wait to get back out on the WRC stages. I’ve contested this event quite a few times now with some good results in the past, so hopefully we can continue that trend next week.
“Having been away from the championship, it will be difficult to get into the rhythm straight away. It’s also been over a year since I last contested a gravel event – it was in Portugal last year actually – so it will take a few stages to get comfortable. But as always, we’ll try our best.
“One of the biggest challenges for me will be the big 52 km stage on the final day. I contested a stage of a similar length in Jordan a couple of years ago which was 48 km. It wasn’t the easiest of stages, but it was really enjoyable and I’m looking forward to tackling Portugal’s offering.
“This is an event where a lot can happen. But if we run our own rally and look after the car and the tyres, I would hope that we can bring home some WRC points and a good result for the team.”
Elfyn Evans said:
“This will be my competitive debut in a four wheel drive car at this level, but I am really looking forward to it. Of course there will be a lot to learn, but I really can’t wait and am obviously very grateful to the team for providing such a fantastic prize for winning the [FIA] WRC Academy.
“I like this event, but it wasn’t one of my best last year. We’ll try to put that right this time and focus on learning the car and securing a solid result going forward for the rest of the championship.”