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."
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."
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.
<pre> RALLY OF PORTUGAL ROUND 4 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 16 - 19 MARCH 2000
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