Beginning tomorrow is WRC event number two without Sebastien Loeb, however his legacy seems to live on with the success of the other French Sebastien. That of course would be VW Motorsports driver Sebastien Ogier, who has dominated the season so far. Of course Ogier hates being compared to Loeb but it is hard not to at least compare the results. It seems that the only thing that can slow down Ogier is illness. Ogier apparently caught a virus while down in Mexico (some bad tequila?), and missed out on the always exciting Fafe Rally Sprint that takes place the weekend before Rally Portugal. Ogier’s been resting and said he is fit to compete tomorrow, but still cancelled a number of promotional events leading up to the rally.
So here we are at the Vodafone Rally de Portugal. This is considered the first of the “normal” rallies of the season. Unlike the icy tarmac of Monte-Carlo, the snow covered stages of Sweden, or the hot and high altitude in Mexico; Rally Portugal takes place in the rolling hills southern region of the country. The dirt in Portugal has a lot of clay in it, which means rain can make it as slippery as glare ice. So far temperatures are looking to be in the upper 60’s fahrenheit with no major rain expected like the slop fest we had last year. All that can change rather quickly this time of year in that region though.
There are a couple of things that make Portugal such a great rally event. First has to be the fans. They are extremely passionate and come out to the stages in droves. It isn’t unheard of for a rally stage to get cancelled due to spectators being in too dangerous of a position. It’s great to have such dedicated fans out there, but we don’t want to go back to the crazy Group B days where people stood in the road and parted like water when a car came. Second is the blind crests, of which are constant. The roads here undulate up and down and around the rolling hillsides in such a fashion that drivers have to have complete confidence in their pace notes or scary things can happen. And that leads me to my last point, the epic crashes that can happen in Portugal. Two years ago Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino crashed in shakedown and landed quite literally in a tree. And most memorable has to be Jari-Matti and Mikka Anttila’s epic crash where they rolled, and rolled, and rolled, and rolled…… down a mountainside. This was the biggest accident in Jari’s career, of which he has had a lot of accidents. Thank goodness neither were hurt. Watch the video below and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
So what is going to happen this year? VW is on deck, but Ogier is not feeling the best and Jari-Matti is still getting dialed into the new car. One great new addition to the VW squad is sure to be every female racing fan’s new heartthrob, Andreas Mikkelson. Mikkelson isn’t just about his marketable looks though, he is very talented having won the last two season of the former Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Mikkelson worked with the new VW squad driving the Skoda S2000 alongside Ogier last year which means he has some good experience with the team, and lots of test time in the car.
Dani Sordo is apparently getting quite comfortable with the Citroen DS3 on gravel after winning the Fafe Rally Sprint last weekend. Typically known for his tarmac exploits, it is good to see Sordo show that he can do well on gravel as well. His teammate Mikko Hirvonen won Rally Portugal last year, but the win was taken away after a non homologated part was found on his Citroen. Mikko knows the roads in Portugal as well as anyone, and also knows where to conserve and where to push.
The Qatar M-Sport squad has the youngest talents on deck. It was Mads Ostberg that recieved the trophy last year after it was taken from Mikko. I can imagine Ostberg wants to prove he can win on his own merits, and gravel is where he has the best chance. Ostberg was the only driver that was able to contest Ogier in Mexico until a mechanical issue pulled him out. Evgeny Novikov is also known to be very quick on the loose stuff. Portugal is one of the events he has some good prior experience which is key with all the blind crests and turns. Thierry Neuville and Nasser Al-Attiya will also be flying the Qatar M-Sport banner. Thierry got his first ever podium in Mexico and I’m sure would like to move up another step or two on the winners stand.
In all there are 13 top level WRC cars competing, and that’s just the beginning. Portugal will be another round of the WRC2 series. There are no less than 20 WRC2 team cars competing this weekend, and most notably among them are last year’s WRC Academy winner Elfyn Evans, former Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica, and former IRC Monte-Carlo winner Bryan Bouffier. The WRC2 class now includes a bevvy of 4wd cars from the former S2000 normally aspirated cars, to the new turbo 1.6 litre RRC cars, and finally a sub-class “production cup” made up of Subaru and Mitsubishi’s.
And finally there will be the return of the JWRC, or Junior World Rally Championship. Shaun just posted an article here on the new field of young talent with some returning from last year and many new faces as well. So there is plenty of action, and the course workers will be working well into the night with so many cars attacking the stages.
Tune in to http://www.wrc.com/fanzone/wrc-live/ at the following times to keep up with all the action!
All times converted to Eastern USA. (Note: they do replay most stage end reports throughout the day)
Friday: 3:00 AM
Saturday: 4:00 AM
Sunday: 1:50 AM
UPDATE: Qualifying completed just this morning and Dani Sordo impresses yet again with the top time! The short 4.9K qualifier had the following results: Sordo fastest followed by Seb Ogier+0.7, Jari-Matti Latvala +0.8, Mads Ostberg+0.9; Mikko Hirvonnen+1.3; Evgeny Novikov +1.6; Theirry Neuville +2, Andreas Mikkelson +6; Khalid Al-Qassimi; +6.4; Nasser Al-Attiya+6.6; and Martin Prokop +7.8. Since this is a gravel event, which means road sweeping is a key factor, the start order will pretty much be the exact reverse of the qualifying times.
WRC Class Start Order:
1: Dennis Kuipers
2: Michael Kosciuszko
3: Martin Prokop
4: Khalid Al-Qassimi
5: Nasser Al-Attiyah
6: Andreas Mikkelsen
7: Thierry Neuville
8: Evgeny Novikov
9: Mikko Hirvonen
10: Mads Østberg
11: Jari-Matti Latvala
12: Sebastien Ogier
13: Dani Sordo