Rally de Portugal
Portugal is and always has been a haven for world rallying. The gravel roads out as far west as Europe goes are among the best on the planet. Just when you think you know where they’re going, there’s another crest and another unseen corner to challenge your perception. In short, Portugal is a driver’s favourite.
Vodafone Rally de Portugal is based in the Algarve Stadium in Faro. Built in 2000, the venue’s finest hour - obviously before the arrival of the World Rally Championship - was being used in the Euro 2004 football tournament. And, when rally cars weren’t thundering their way through the centre circle, local clubs Louletano and Sporting Club Farense share the ground as their home.
But next week, football’s forgotten as far as Faro’s concerned. It’s all about Portugal’s other passion: rallying.
For the first time in the rally’s recent history, the event includes a stage much further north. There’s also a tweak to the timetabling of the pre-event shakedown for this third round of the WRC, which takes place, unusually, on Wednesday evening, with the crews all hitting the road north the following morning.
The first competitive action happens around the streets of Lisbon. The drivers are certain to receive a rapturous welcome on the 3.27-kilometre test, which is undoubtedly going to be one of the best-supported superspecials of the season.
With the return journey to Portugal’s south coast to make, the stage starts earlier than most superspecials, with the first driver into the test at 15:25hrs local time.
The next morning, Friday, the cars will be getting dirty as the competition steps up a level on the first of the gravel stages. Another first for this Algarve-based event is the lack of action inside the stadium itself. With Lisbon done, the winner of this year’s event will be decided after three days of all-gravel action in the hills inland from Faro.
And the vast majority of the roads (except for the Lisbon stage) are well known to the crews. A mere 17 per cent of the route has been altered from the one used in 2010 and most of that can be found in the Santana da Serra stage - and some of that was sampled in 2007. That 31.04-kilometre test (SS15/17) will be the live-for-television Power Stage on Sunday afternoon.
Another change from last season is the date: it’s just 10 months since the WRC was last in town. And that move from May to March could make all the difference to the roads. Summer was just waking up on the beautiful Algarve coast last time around, but next week we’re still firmly in spring. And spring by the sea can and often does mean changeable weather. Sitting alongside one of the biggest stretches of water in the world - the Atlantic - when weather fronts come in, they can come in and douse the first dry land they find. And that’s Portugal.
If it does turn wet, the running order can be turned on its head, with first on the road often becoming the most favoured option. But, if it’s dry, the gravel will be loose and championship leader Mikko Hirvonen will be forced to sweep it clean for the second event in succession.
Who’s going to win?
This is the rally everybody has been waiting for. This is the rally where we’re going to find out who’s the best, not in terms of Sebastien Loeb versus Mikko Hirvonen or Sebastien Ogier versus Jari-Matti Latvala, but in terms of Xavier Mestelan-Pinon versus Christian Loriaux.
It’s on the Vodafone Rally de Portugal next week that we’re going to find out which of the technical directors has the sharper pencil, the keener eye and the more refined attention to detail. We’re going to find out which is faster in real terms, the Citroen DS3 WRC or the Ford Fiesta RS WRC.
Citroen had the upper hand on Rally Guanajuato Mexico earlier this month, but Mestelan-Pinon is quick to point to a number of factors which mean he remains cautious in the face of Loeb’s latest big win. The seven-time champion suffered a minor gear-shift issue when a clip, one of the cheapest parts on the car, broke. That won’t happen again. Ogier, too, suffered a minor engine problem on the final stage of day two in North America and Petter Solberg’s DS3 was hit by an electrical issue which ruled him out of the potential win.
Those are the main reasons why Mestelan-Pinon isn’t about to shuffle the already crowed trophy cabinet around to fit in this year’s silverware. Not yet anyway.
The big difference between Mexico and Portugal is the altitude. Mexico was high, the highest of the season and that seriously reduces the level of power available to the drivers as the engines struggle to breathe in the thinner air. Next week, they’ll have as much air as they want; starting alongside the Atlantic, they’re very definitely at sea level.
Ogier and Solberg probably start as favourites for victory, courtesy of running six and five on the road respectively. The Portuguese gravel does clean if it stays dry, but at the same time, running further back on the road can sometimes provide it’s own issues as the drivers ahead can unearth suspension-smashing rocks, which had been camouflaged during the recce. Winning from the front is certainly possible, even in the driest of conditions - as Ogier demonstrated last season.
Ogier’s confidence is always high and coming back to the scene of his maiden WRC triumph will more than make up for his early exit from round two, when he clattered his Citroen against some rocks, forcing him out of the lead in Leon.
Solberg maintains he was in the perfect position from which to challenge when his car let him down on the last one. And it’s hard to argue with that, lurking just behind the two factory DS3s, one place further back on the road, the Norwegian was looking a good bet early on day one. But then his car stopped and the minutes ticked by. Vodafone Rally de Portugal is a new day, though, and Solberg’s already back on top form. He loves the passion of Portugal and Portugal loves Petter.
Even after he was beaten last year, it’s hard to look past Loeb. He’s the master of dealing with road-sweeping or whatever a rally throws at him and he will certainly be in the mix.
But what about the Fords? Hirvonen, the title leader, is likely to struggle being at the front of the field, which leaves the onus on young team-mate Latvala. Latvala has been here three times and twice - the last twice - his car has departed on a tow truck. In 2009, bits of the car probably left on different tow trucks, so wide was the dispersal of Ford Focus parts after he rolled down a mountain.
And, of all the drivers in with a shot at winning in Portugal, it’s arguably Latvala who’s having the biggest job in coming to terms with the nervousness allied to the new car’s shorter wheelbase. Now, more than ever, the Finn has got to drive the car straight. Do that, and he could erase his Portuguese nightmares at a stroke.
Mads Ostberg, Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson are all well placed on the road to benefit from cleaner lines - and all are capable of being in the top 10 at the finish.
Other Fiesta drivers keen to see the finish will be Ken Block, who had a torrid time in Mexico, Khalid Al Qassimi and Dennis Kuipers, who will both be looking to build their knowledge of the new Ford - with the Dutchman also hoping to overcome his Mexican roll.
Beyond the usual suspects, there’s plenty of excitement for the passionate Portuguese public, with Kimi Raikkonen returning and hoping to improve on his 10th place from last year. Peter van Merksteijn Jr makes his Citroen debut, raising the number of DS3s to five in Faro.
Probably the biggest cheers will be saved for two-time Production world champion Armindo Araujo who, along with Brazilian Daniel Oliveira, will give the MINI John Cooper Works S2000 its much-awaited world debut on this event. The full factory World Rally Cars come in Italy, but this S2000 version will give a definite indication as to the direction car builder Prodrive has taken the MIINI in.
Bernardo Sousa gets his big chance on his home round of the world championship, driving a Fiesta RS WRC. His countryman Bruno Magalhaes will also be out to impress in his Peugeot 207 S2000, particularly on the streets of his home city Lisbon.
The event will also be a round of the PWRC, where Martin Semerad will look to build on his perfect start in Sweden with another victory in his Mitsubishi. Leading Subaru drivers Patrick Flodin and Anders Grondal will be ready to stand in the former Pirelli Star Driver’s way, however.
Talking of Pirelli Star Drivers, six have been selected for this season and next week will mark their first outing as part of the all-new FIA WRC Academy young driver training series. Twenty rising hopefuls will line up for the first event in identical Ford Fiesta R2s prepared and maintained by M-Sport.
On this rally last year
Vodafone Rally de Portugal 2010 will be well remembered for two things: Citroen Total World Rally Team principal Olivier Quesnel’s brave decision to let Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier fight - and the latter’s first ever WRC victory. Ogier was immense on the Algarve last season. He led the event from the front and, through dogged determination and raw skill, became the first man ever to show Loeb the way home in a Citroen C4 WRC. Prior to Portugal, Ogier had come within an ace of winning in New Zealand only to make a mistake on the final stage. But he put that disappointment behind him to beat Loeb by 7.9 seconds in Faro. Dani Sordo made it an all-Citroen podium, bringing his C4 home third.
Did you know?
The legendary Markku Alen is Vodafone Rally de Portugal’s most successful driver. The flying Finn has won this event five times, that’s two more than Miki Biasion and Hannu Mikkola have managed.
Three tyre manufacturers will be present in Portugal, with Michelin supplying Citroen and Ford with the hard-compound Latitude Cross. DMACK tyres will be fitted to several private cars with priority drivers running the hard-compound DMG2 rubber.
All 20 of the WRC Academy Fiesta R2s will use Pirelli’s K4 medium-compound covers.