New-look Portugal rally starts BP-Ford's European gravel bid FIA World Rally Championship pacesetter BP-Ford revisits one of the sport's classic rallies next week as the European gravel element of the season begins in Portugal. After a...
New-look Portugal rally starts BP-Ford's European gravel bid
FIA World Rally Championship pacesetter BP-Ford revisits one of the sport's classic rallies next week as the European gravel element of the season begins in Portugal. After a five-year absence, Rally de Portugal (29 March - 1 April) returns to the championship with an entirely new structure. It is based in the Algarve holiday region on the south coast and offers demanding loose surface roads which are new to virtually all drivers.
After two victories and five other podium finishes with the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in the opening four rounds of the 16-rally series, reigning manufacturers' champion BP-Ford has built a 15-point lead. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen head the drivers' standings by four points with team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen in third.
Formerly a mixed asphalt and gravel rally that covered much of the country, Portugal was named best rally in the championship on six occasions. However, it lost its place in 2002 and has been reborn in the Algarve, an area which has seen little national or international rallying. The speed tests blend fast, open roads and more technical special stages on hard gravel tracks, which are likely to be abrasive in the dry. However, they become extremely slippery in the wet.
The rally is based on the edge of Faro, at the Estadio Algarve, which was built for the 2004 European Soccer Championships. As well as hosting the service park and the event administration, it is also the venue for a super special stage. Competitors start inside the stadium before leaving for a loop behind one end and then re-entering the arena for the finish.
Gronholm has twice scored podium finishes in Portugal but like most drivers, he has no experience of the Algarve roads. "The last time Portugal appeared in the championship was in 2001 when the weather was incredible," said 39-year-old Gronholm. "The rain was torrential and the stages were muddy and foggy - it was horrible! But my memories of the rally were always good. My first Rally de Portugal was in 1995. I retired on my first four starts but then I finished second in 2000 and third in 2001 when the rally was based around Porto and included such classic stages as Fafe and Arganil.
"It had a great atmosphere because the crowds were huge and so enthusiastic. This year's rally will, of course, be very different. It is based on the south coast rather than the west coast so I know nothing about the stages. They will be new to most of us but I am looking forward to the rally and I'm sure the crowds will continue to come out to watch in their thousands," he added.
Hirvonen is one of just three leading drivers with previous experience of the stages. The 25-year-old Finn was second in 2005 when the event was a candidate rally. "I remember the roads as being enjoyable to drive with twisty sections mixed in with wider, faster parts. They were in good condition and although the roads cleaned a little during the first pass, they were not particularly rough during the second time through," he said.
"The tracks are abrasive so it could be hard on tyres. But tyre choice should be straight forward because if it is dry then a hard compound is the only option for such roads.
"I don't recall too many specific details of the roads but the stages in the first leg are the same as the ones I drove in 2005 so I have the pace notes already and they should just need checking. The rally will be similar to Norway where nobody held an advantage through years of experience of the stages. Things will be more level and that should help me. I won in Norway so a repeat in Portugal would suit me perfectly!" added Hirvonen.
* BP-Ford will use BFGoodrich's g-Force gravel tyre for the medium-wear loose surface roads. The pattern is relatively compact to ensure a maximum amount of rubber is in contact with the ground for the best possible grip and traction. The grooves can be hand cut to open them if there is a lot of loose gravel on the road surface or if the tracks become muddy. The tyres will be available in soft and hard compound rubber.
* Ten Focus RS WRCs feature on the entry list. Eight are 2006 specification cars with the BP-Ford, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford and Munchi's Ford cars being supplemented by a private entry for Gareth MacHale. There are also 2005 cars for Andreas Mikkelsen and Guy Wilks.
* Portugal is the second round of the seven-event Fiesta SportingTrophy International. Seven Fiesta ST cars are entered with Barry Clark and Scott Martin leading the standings after last month's opening round in Norway.
The rally is based at Estadio Algarve, just outside Faro in Portugal's south-coast Algarve holiday region. As well as hosting the single service park, the stadium also holds a super special stage to start the action on Thursday evening and a repeat test to bring the rally to a close on Sunday afternoon. The bulk of the traditional stages are based in the Serra do Caldeirao mountains, north of Faro. Each leg comprises two identical loops of stages, split by a return to the service park. The second leg is the longest and most northerly of the three. It is believed to be the most compact European WRC round with more than 35 per cent of the route being competitive. Drivers tackle 18 stages covering 357.10km in a total route of 1008.70km.