Rally of Portugal Preview

The view of Portugal's vintage port houses lined up alongside Porto's Rio Douro river signifies a return to some semblance of rallying normality for the Ford Martini team after the contrasts of the last two FIA World Rally Championship events in...

The view of Portugal's vintage port houses lined up alongside Porto's Rio Douro river signifies a return to some semblance of rallying normality for the Ford Martini team after the contrasts of the last two FIA World Rally Championship events in Sweden and Kenya. The ice of Scandinavia and the searing heat of Africa will be forgotten as the series returns to Europe for the Rally of Portugal (16 - 19 March), the first traditional gravel event of the year.

It is widely regarded as a form guide to the season ahead, the eccentricities of the opening three rounds giving way to the consistency of gravel roads which make up the bulk of the 14-round championship. As such it will provide Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, winners of the Portugal rally last year in a Ford Focus World Rally Car, and colleagues Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya with a first opportunity to analyse their cars in such stable conditions.

The Focus cars will have a revised steering rack system in use for the first time in competition. The rack has been totally redesigned to make it stronger and eliminate the difficulties which have sometimes hindered the drivers.

"Portugal is the first rally of the season held on normal type of terrain and so it's a good gauge for all of us," said McRae. "If the steering works as well as everyone hopes it'll be a big improvement. It's one of the most important parts of the car and as everyone knows, we have had troubles so this should resolve a lot of the inconsistent feeling that we've experienced."

The rally is a major milestone for Grist who will join the exclusive club of competitors who have started 100 world championship rallies. His first was Britain's RAC Rally in 1984 and Portugal is a fitting location to reach his century, the 38-year-old Welshman three times a winner, in 1994 with Juha Kankkunen and in 1998 and 1999 with McRae.

"It's quite an achievement to reach 100 and it would be a superb way to celebrate with another victory in Portugal," said Grist. "The stages suit Colin's style. They're not especially rough but they're not the smoothest either and anyone brave enough to attack hard can be well rewarded."

Thirty-seven-year-old Sainz has won twice here and made a sensational championship debut in 1987 when the unknown Madrid-driver shocked the established stars by taking an early lead in his Ford Sierra before later retiring.

"I tested the Focus for three days last week," said Sainz. "That was the first time I've driven the car on true gravel stages because the Safari car was so different in terms of transmission and suspension. It felt good and the steering was a big improvement. I think all the difficulties should be finished. Although the Portuguese stages are all gravel, there's a mixture of five or six very different types of surface. Some sections are sandy, some are rutted, some are rocky."

A third Ford Focus will be driven by Petter Solberg and Phil Mills, the 'junior' members of the Ford trio fresh from a superb fifth place on Kenya's Safari Rally earlier this month. It will be Solberg's second start on the rally but the young Norwegian has totally revised his pace note system since last year's debut. "It's a little bit easier when you have driven most of the stages before but we've changed our system of pace notes so we'll have to write all the notes again. But this system is much better so it will be to our benefit," he said.

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson is looking forward to the start of the European gravel season with confidence. "We're at the stage of the championship where it's important to gain consistently good results and collect a solid base of points from which to launch a title challenge later in the year. We've scored points on each of the first three events and we'll look to maintain that record. The new steering rack should be a big help to the drivers. We've tested it in Portugal last week and the results are very encouraging."

Technical Talk

This rally marks the first event where new tyre regulations, restricting teams to a choice of two tread patterns on gravel events, will have a marked effect. The Ford Martini team worked closely with tyre partner Michelin to make its choice several weeks ago, in line with the rules. Whatever the conditions, the decision cannot be altered although drivers remain free to choose from a variety of compounds or make additional cuts to the basic pattern.

An added complication is that Portugal is a rally where teams must prepare for the biggest variety of weather conditions and this year's slightly earlier date has not made forecasting any simpler. Poor weather can force temperatures down to 7°C but that will rise noticeably if the rally is marked by the warm sunshine enjoyed in recent years. Rain before or during the rally is another unpredictable hazard which can alter conditions significantly.

Michelin's response to these unknown factors is to prepare a broader selection of compounds for the patterns available, providing a compromise to the new rules effectively requiring tyre companies to do away with products for extreme conditions. "It means drivers must choose a good compromise tyre for dry conditions and the same for wet conditions," said Sainz. "If it's dry, tyre selection is easy on this rally anyway but if it's very muddy it'll be more difficult as we don't have a specialist tyre for those conditions."

Rally Route

After an opening super special stage at Baltar on Thursday, the rally splits into three distinct areas. The opening leg takes drivers to the sandy roads north east of the rally's Porto base in the hills around Fafe, ending with a second super special at Lousada rallycross circuit. Leg 2, the longest of the four-day event, heads south to the rockier and rougher tests around Arganil with the short final morning centred around Ponte de Lima, close to Portugal's northern border with Spain. Drivers will tackle 398.35km of stages in a route of almost 1647km, and tens of thousands of fanatical rally fans, for which this event is so renown, will encourage their heroes every kilometre of the way. Although the stages are not generally long, the roads have a reputation for taking their toll on the cars, especially those around Arganil.


Thursday 16 March: Leg 1 Matosinhos - Matosinhos

Start   Matosinhos                              16.00
SS1     Baltar                  3.20km          17.30
Finish  Matosinhos                              19.10

Friday 17 March: Leg 1 (cont.) Matosinhos - Matosinhos

Start           Matosinhos                      05.30
SS 2    Fafe/Lameirinha 1                       15.16km         07:25
SS 3    Fafe/Luilhas 1                          11.39km         07:50
SS 4    Cabreira 1                              26.68km         08:45
SS 5    Fafe/Lameirinha 2                       15.16km         10:25
SS 6    Fafe/Luilhas 2                          11.39km         10:50
SS 7    Cabreira 2                              26.68km         11:45
SS 8    Vizo                                    11.77km         13:21
SS 9    Fridão                                  14.20km         14:16
SS 10   Aboboreira                              17.87km         15:06
SS 11   Lousada                                  5.30km         17:45
Finish  Matosinhos                                              20.00
Total                                          158.80km     

Saturday 18 March: Leg 2 Matosinhos - Matosinhos

Start   Matosinhos                              06.00
SS 12   Piódão 1                                24.78km         09:15
SS 13   Arganil 1                               14.27km         10:18
SS 14   Góis 1                                  19.62km         10:46
SS 15   Piódão 2                                24.78km         13:10
SS 16   Arganil 2                               14.27km         14:13
SS 17   Góis 2                                  19.62km         14:41
SS 18   Tábua                                   13.40km         16:28
SS 19   Aguieira                                23.13km         17:23
SS 20   Mortazel/Mortágua                       25.38km         18:00
Finish  Matosinhos                                              21.00
Total                                          179.25km

Sunday 19 March: Leg 3 Matosinhos - Matosinhos

Start   Matosinhos                              06.00
SS 21   Ponte De Lima Este                      23.49km         07:33
SS 22   Ponte De Lima Oeste                     25.68km         08:28
SS 23   Ponte De Lima Sul                       11.15km         09:33
Finish  Matosinhos                                              12.00
Total                                           60.32km

Rally total 398.35km

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Petter Solberg , Juha Kankkunen , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Malcolm Wilson