WRC Preview: Rally Portugal
Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Debargha Banerjee
The World Rally Championship continues its European tour, as the teams now head to Portugal for the first gravel rally of this year. Being one of the original eight rallies of the inaugural WRC season all the way back in 1973, the event has earned cult status over the years, with its spectacular setpieces and the famous Fafe jump, which sees cars travelling in the air for tens of metres. Despite being considered one of the more traditional rallies, Portugal is no short of challenges and in fact features fast and sweeping dirt roads that turn to rough gravel passes as the days go by with unpredictable weather conditions.They can turn the entire competition on its head on a whim.
The rally is so unpredictable, that the last seven iterations have seen a different winner each time, which does not bode well for half of the Rally1 entry list, since they’ve all stood on the winner’s rostrum at some point. Joint championship leader Elfyn Evans has slightly bigger worries, as Sebastien Ogier’s absence means he will be opening the road on Friday, stating he’s hoping for rain to level the playfield. On the flip side, dry weather could potentially be a golden opportunity for Kalle Rovanperä to score his first win since New Zealand last year, the rally where he also secured his maiden championship.
Second place last time out was an excellent result for Ott Tänak and the somewhat troubled Ford Puma, meaning he’ll be third in the running order come Friday. The fact he’s only three points behind Rovanperä and a further one away from Evans means that a good weekend here could see him climb to the top of the standings.
Thierry Neuville is one who also needs a good weekend after the disappointment of Croatia last time out, where he crashed out of the lead. Mistakes of this kind are pivotal to a championship campaign. The Belgian’s Hyundai too is reaching a critical point, after still being winless, despite leading three of the four rallies at some point.
He might not have felt anywhere comfortable with the car on the Croatian asphalt, but Esapekka Lappi did achieve his first podium finish for Hyundai in what was an emotional weekend for the team. The Finn has shown promising speed in both Sweden and Mexico so far, all he needs to do now is stay consistent for the duration of the rally.
Dani Sordo has the duties of the third and final car for the Korean outfit for Portugal. His season has been pretty lacklustre up to this point, so he needs to prove he can be a valuable asset to the team if he wants to keep his seat for the future.
Takamoto Katsuta finally had a clean rally after two non-scores in the last couple of events. He nearly missed out on a podium to Dani Sordo last time out in Portugal, so he will be hoping to get the job done this year.
Pierre-Louis Loubet, is someone else who is not exactly having the best of starts to his first full season in the sport, but Portugal could well be a turning point in the right direction. The Frenchman said that he likes this rally a lot and it showed last year, being the first of the four Pumas that reached the end of the event.
As if the action in the top class wasn’t enough, the WRC2 field is going all out in Portugal. Adrien Fourmaux, Oliver Solberg and Gus Greensmith will be making an appearance, with current series leader Yohan Rossel also present. 2021 champion Andreas Mikkelsen will also be competing in one of the may Toksport Skoda Fabias, alongside Nikolay Gryazin. But the biggest news is the return of former WRC driver-and a former winner of the event-Kris Meeke, competing for team Hyundai in Portugal, the place of his late friend Craig Breen. Meeke will also compete in the rest of the Portuguese rally championship to honour his fellow passionate Irishman.