An array of highly talented drivers will take centre stage as the Ford and Pirelli supported FIA WRC Academy embarks on the opening round of the season at the Vodafone Rally de Portugal next week. With national champions, class victors and members of the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy all in the mix, this year’s Cup is set to thrill and the first victory could be awarded to any of the series’ first ten crews.
Supported by Ford Racing in Europe, this year’s WRC Academy will once again run identical Ford Fiesta R2s with control tyres from Pirelli. Promoting competitive rallying amongst equal competition, the outright speed and potential of this year’s drivers is clear to see and the crews will be out to impress.
With its mix of open roads, hidden crests and narrow twisting sections, Rally de Portugal is one of the most technically challenging on the WRC calendar. Revisiting the popular Super Special at the Praça do Império, Rally de Portugal kicks off in Lisbon city-centre before the WRC Academy crews tackle three back-to-back night stages on their return to the rally’s base in the Algarve. Two loops of three stages follow on Friday as the rally returns to the Tavira municipality for the first time since 2007 before returning to last year’s format for the remaining three stages on Saturday.
Returning to the WRC Academy for his second assault on the one-make series, Sweden’s Fredrik Åhlin (20) will be looking to improve as he contests Rally de Portugal for the second time alongside co-driver Morten Erik Abrahamsen. Hoping to utilise his knowledge of Saturday’s stages, Sweden’s youngest ever rally winner will be keen to make an impression.
After contesting the final round of the WRC Academy in its inaugural season, American Chris Duplessis (24) will revisit the series alongside Irishman Karl Atkinson this year. Fresh from his victory with the Ford Fiesta R2 at the 100 Acre Wood Rally last month, the youngster will be looking for another strong performance on his return to European rallying.
New to the WRC Academy in 2012, Elfyn Evans (23) will be eager to show his potential as he embarks on the first round of the season alongside fellow Welshman Andrew Edwards. Evans holds the record for the Ford Fiesta R2 in competition after securing 16th place overall at the 2011 Rallye de France Alsace and will be looking to translate his vast knowledge of the Fiesta into some strong points in Portugal.
After claiming third place overall in last year’s WRC Academy, Alastair Fisher (23) is the highest placed returnee to the one-make series. Like Evans, the Northern Irishman will contest the Bulldog Rally of North Wales (as part of the British Rally Championship) this weekend in the Ford Fiesta R2 alongside regular co-driver, Daniel Barritt. The youngster will be hoping the extra competition holds him in good stead as he chases the top-step of the podium in the Algarve.
After taking a class win at Wales Rally GB last year, John MacCrone (22) has already tested his speed on the world stage. Returning to contest a full season in the world series as part of the WRC Academy, the Scotsman is ready and eager to impress alongside fellow countryman, Stuart Loudon.
The brother and sister pairing of Brendan Reeves (23) and Rhianon Smyth also make a welcome return to the WRC Academy for 2012. Finishing fifth in last year’s series, and having contested 48 rallies together since 2006, the popular Australian pairing will be hoping their knowledge gives them an edge as they pursue victory in Portugal. As a member of the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy, Reeves will be putting all of his training into practice next week.
Eager to make the most of home advantage, João Silva (24) will be looking for a strong result as he competes alongside fellow Portuguese Jose Jañela. The two-time Madeiran Junior Rally Champion has an impressive history at Rally de Portugal having contested the event on two separate occasions and taking the class victory last year.
Returning to the WRC Academy for a second season, Jose Antonio Suárez (20) will be looking to build on the knowledge gained in 2011 as he pursues victory on gravel. Having set consistent top-five times throughout Rally de Portugal last year, the 2010 Junior Spanish Tarmac Rally Champion will be keen to impress on the first test of the year.
Sweden’s youngest ever Rally Champion, and a member of the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy, Pontus Tidemand (21), also joins the WRC Academy in Portugal. An expert on snow and gravel, the youngster will be eager to show what makes him a national champion as he embarks on his first full campaign on the world stage alongside Norwegian, Stig Rune Skjærmoen.
Finally, fellow FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy driver, Timo Van der Marel (22), makes a return to the series in a second bid for glory. Having taken a number of class victories in his native Holland already this year, and supported by the Dutch Motorsport Federation’s (KNAF) young driver initiative, Van der Marel is currently leading Holland’s Nissan Cup and will be hoping for further successes at the WRC Academy season opener.
The talent on display will make the 2012 edition of the one-make series one of the most exciting to date. Any of the ten competing crews has a shot at victory at the Vodafone Rally de Portugal next week and the WRC Academy is set to provide some of the most close-fought rallying in the field.
Local Portuguese driver, João Silva, said:
"We are getting closer to Rally de Portugal and I am very excited to start. Debuting in Portugal is really good and I hope to take full advantage of that and set a good pace against the other crews. We won’t know how our pace compares until the first day of competition, but for sure we will give it our best!
“This week will be very busy with the recce, testing and all the WRC Academy activities, so we will have to keep focused and work our hardest from the beginning.
“I felt really good at the M-Sport training days, so I hope to feel the same here in Portugal – which, of course, everyone wants to win.
“I cannot wait to get behind the wheel of the [Ford] Fiesta [R2] and start testing on Wednesday because I haven’t driven the car in competition yet – just a small asphalt test at M-Sport.
“Let the competition begin!"
Securing the final podium spot in last year’s series, Alastair Fisher, said:
“This rally has been a long time coming and I cannot wait to be back behind the wheel of a rally car in the WRC! We have been doing a lot of hard work over the winter and I am really looking forward to the competition.
“I will be competing in the Bulldog Rally [part of the British Rally Championship] and hopefully the time in the [Ford] Fiesta [R2] should see us well prepared as we head back to Portugal.
“We were leading the event until the last day when we contested the [FIA WRC] Academy last year, so this year we’ll be aiming to do one better. For sure everyone will be pushing for a strong result and a lot of the field will be back for a second time, so it won’t be easy, but we will certainly give it our best shot!”