Five-time World Champion Sébastien Ogier starts as the slight favourite to eclipse Finnish legend Markku Alén’s record of five Portuguese victories and strengthen his grip on the lead of the Drivers’ Championship when the 52nd Vodafone Rally of Portugal fires into life with a spectacular super special stage at the Lousada rallycross circuit on Thursday evening.
Fourteen World Rally Cars top an impressive 88-car entry for the 20-stage event that finishes with a now traditional Power Stage blast through the legendary Fafe stage on Sunday.
The M-Sport Ford Rally Team driver has already won three rounds this year in Monte-Carlo, Mexico and Corsica, but results in Sweden and Argentina prove that he is not infallible. Ogier has a superb record on Portuguese gravel, however, having reached the top step of the podium in 2010 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017. Last year, he also gave Ford a first win at the event since 2012.
The Blue Oval’s main hopes rest with the canny Frenchman, but team-mates Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen are overdue a good finish. Evans’s results have stuttered since his stunning victory in last autumn’s Wales Rally GB and he has picked up modest points on three events this year. Suninen has not faired so well and six points have been the pickings from a slow start to the year for the talented youngster. The team will be hoping for positive feedback from a recent test session in northern Portugal.
The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team currently leads the Manufacturers’ Championship by 15 points from the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team, with Toyota GAZOO Racing a close third and the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team currently languishing in a distant fourth.
Belgian driver Thierry Neuville has, perhaps, his best ever chance of winning the Drivers’ Championship this year. He trails Ogier by 10 points heading to the start of the Rally of Portugal on Thursday and, like team-mates Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo, knows the importance of a high points-scoring finish on Sunday.
Hayden Paddon returns to the Hyundai line-up in a fourth i20 WRC after missing recent rounds in Mexico, Corsica and Argentina. He also replaces Sordo as the third points-scoring driver. The Kiwi has not been away from the special stages, however, and crushing victories in the Rally of Otago and Rally of Whangerei preceded a recent two-day test session.
“I’m under no illusion that the WRC is a different kettle of fish at the elite level and three months out of the car is a gap I have to bridge quickly,” admitted Paddon.
Toyota GAZOO Racing continue to make rapid progress in a short space of time and the astute signing of Estonian driver Ott Tänak was a masterstroke by team principal Tommi Mäkinen, himself a former winner in Portugal in 1997 and 2001. The youngster won the recent Rally of Argentina – his third WRC success – and the runner-up spot in Monte-Carlo and Corsica meant that he leapt into third in the championship standings.
“Portugal has always been one of my favourite events,” said Tänak. “There is a great atmosphere. It’s also the place where everything started for me in the WRC in 2009. I think Friday will be critical with our road position. We have two cars in front of us, so we will have lines to follow.”
Full of confidence and raring to go, Tänak has the support of Finnish team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala (winner in 2015) and Esapekka Lappi to mount a serious challenge for the Japanese manufacturer on an event the brand last won with Frenchman Didier Auriol in a Toyota Corolla WRC back in 2002.
Latvala said: “I believe our car will be strong again in Portugal. It is quite a similar rally to Argentina, but the surfaces are smoother and the roads are a bit more flowing. We had two days of pre-event testing here last week and I had our test driver Juho Hänninen with me during the test. We were working together to fine tune the car.”
The Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has swapped and changed its driver line-up this season and nine-time World Champion Sébastien Loeb tackled two events alongside Ulsterman Kris Meeke before returning to his primary FIA rally cross commitments. The team has struggled for consistency so far in 2018, the highlights of the year being third place for Meeke in Mexico and second overall for Ireland’s Craig Breen in Rally Sweden.
Loeb led in Mexico for a long time before sustaining a puncture and an uncharacteristic crash sidelined him in Corsica. Breen crashed out of a strong position in Argentina last month and the pressure is on the Anglo-Irish pairing to score a crop of championship points for Citroën this week, although they do have the support of 2012 Rally of Portugal winner Mads Østberg and Meeke won here in 2016.
The Norwegian drives the third C3 WRC and teams up with fellow countryman Torsten Eriksen, as the team hopes to benefit from a rear axle upgrade to the C3 that was homologated before Argentina.
Østberg said: “I’m delighted to be back in the team after my last race at Rally Sweden, which seems like it was light years ago. I might need a bit of time to get my bearings again. But I had a good day testing with the C3 WRC before Argentina. Portugal is a bit special for me, as it’s the only one I’ve won in the WRC, when it was held in the Algarve.”
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi drives the last of the World Rally Cars – a Ford Fiesta WRC - alongside co-driver Michael Orr.
The event starts at Guimarães Castle on Thursday evening and then teams tackle the opening super special stage at Lousada from 19.03hrs.
Friday’s first full day of gravel action heads north towards Spanish border country for three stages, repeated twice, in the Viano do Castelo region and the day ends with two street stages in the centre of Porto.