This week 81 teams move to the Iberian Peninsula for the fourth round of the World Rally Championship (WRC), the Rally de Portugal, the first gravel event of the 2021 season.
The Portuguese Rally was one of the founding events on the inaugural WRC calendar in 1973 and has been voted the “Best Rally in the World” five times. The rally returns this year, following its 2020 cancellation due to Covid-19 and promises to be an extremely challenging three day event with many of the early stages back on the schedule.
The rally proper will get underway tomorrow morning, when crews will start the first of 20 special stages covering 337 km out of the 1514 km total distance. A central service park is at the Exponor exhibition centre in Matosinhos, just north of the city of Porto.
The Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT’s three crews will be putting in maximum effort in the chase for both championships, particularly the Manufacturers’ title where Toyota Gazoo Racing on 138 points hold a 27 point lead over Hyundai on 111 points. Thierry Neuville (53 points) and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe are second in the Drivers’ title battle, the new partnership for 2021 has resulted in three podium finishes.
Team-mates Ott Tänak (40 points) and Martin Järveoja will be keen to regain the podium, after a DNF in Monte Carlo, a win on the Arctic Rally and a fourth in Croatia. The third crew for Hyundai will be Dani Sordo (11 points) with new co-driver Borja Rozada. Sordo has only competed in one rally for the team so far this season but is more than capable of a solid podium finish.
For the M-Sport Ford WRT, Portugal has, in years gone by produced some great results. In 2017 the Fiesta took victory, driven by Sebastien Ogier and the following year it was a second and third for the Ford team, this time with Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen. Unfortunately we are unlikely to see a repeat of those halcyon days this year.
Gus Greensmith (12 points) on a second outing with new co-driver Chris Patterson will be experiencing his second Portuguese rally, and his 7th position in Croatia must be a boost for the team. On his second full WRC appearance Adrien Fourmaux (10 points) with Jamoul Renaud will certainly be on a high – his fifth spot last month in Croatia was a great debut WRC rally for the young Frenchman.
Management have stressed there is no pressure on either driver as both teams are on a major learning curve and should be able to increase the 42 points they have achieved on the Manufacturers championship table.
Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier (61 points) with Julien Ingrassia lead the Drivers’ log with 61 points, but as first car on the road will be at a disadvantage with a lack of grip. He certainly can never be discounted on any rally and is likely to grace the podium.
Next up is the team of Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin whose 51 points is just two behind Neuville and within striking distance of the Belgian. Evans narrowly missed his first WRC title to Ogier last year and will be pushing hard to reverse the situation in 2021.
Going into the Croatian Rally as the youngest championship leader was an amazing achievement for Kalle Rovanpera (39 points) with co-driver Jonne Halttunen but just over five km into Stage 1they crashed out of the rally.
Finishing 1 and 2 in Croatia, after trialing an aerodynamic package upgrade, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT have decided to introduce a new engine with improved power and reliability for this round.
Round four is going to be a difficult event to read for the teams, with soft sandy surfaces which become rocky sfter the second pass. There is also the relatively unknown characteristics of the new Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres in both hard and medium compounds, which makes its rally debut after limited testing prior to the event.
The terrain, tyres and dust will be a true trial for the crews and the infamous final Fafe power stage with the finish line just beyond the enormous Pedra Sentada jump could result in a rally that goes right down to the wire.