This weekend is the beginning of round 4 for the WRC calendar and it sees the championship in Portugal. The first of seven rallies straight on a consistent gravel surface and the season has now officially began. Sebastian Loeb has been dominant early in his Citroen C4 and looks to go 4 for 4 this weekend. If any weekend would see Loeb on his toes though, surly this would be it. The Ford Focus has gotten a number of engine upgrades and feels more than at home on the gravel surface. Enter variable number one and Marcus Gronholm has returned for Prodrive in a 2008 Subaru Impreza and is looking to get a great finish in his one off with the team. Here is a look at the important points for this weekend.
Sebastian Loeb and Danni Sordo will be looking to continue Citroen’s dominant pace through the opening rounds. Loeb is a sure bet on any surface he drives on and will be tough to beat this weekend. Loeb has answered the BP Ford team on all occasions this season and relishes the fact that Mikko Hirvonen has allowed him a gap in most of the early stages. That as we all know is the absolute wrong tactic when you are trying to take the fight to a five time rally champion. Sordo will hope for a good finish to help secure more points for Citroen in their hunt for the manufacturers trophy. As long as Loeb keeps the car out of trouble he is nearly a sure thing for victory come Sunday.
BP Ford will be looking to answer some questions presented by the critics and score some badly needed points. Mikko Hirvonen who is one of the most consistent drivers of the top group will be looking to really take the fight to Loeb this weekend. Hirvonen is eight points out of the championship and is in a must win situation this weekend. Both Ford drivers are feeling the pressure, but Jari-Mati Latvala is starting to show signs of extreme stress. Latvala has only scored 6 points in three events and is desperately doing anything possible to gather a good result. Latvala has went as far as to shut off the split times for this rally in order to relieve the stress. Jari-Mati still has the backing of team boss Malcolm Wilson but seriously? If he continues to suffer bad results one must ask the future of the young star. Either way, Ford are hoping the engine upgrades are enough to help them secure their first win of the year in Portugal.
There are however, two wild cards in the rally that will make things interesting if the top teams suffer problems. Marcus Gronholm has returned to the WRC after nearly 16 months off. He has climbed behind the wheel of the Prodrive 08 Impreza and is hoping for a good result in this one off. The former champion has down played his chances this weekend, but surely if one of the lead drivers goes out he will be there to pounce on the opportunity. This is a bit of redemption for Prodrive who lost Subaru backing early in theoff season. The team still believe they can run competitive and look to prove a point this weekend with slight suspension upgrades to the car. The driver and car combo are championship caliber and should make for one hell of a show.
The other wild card will see the old Subaru champion Petter Solberg run his privately owned Xsara in the rally once again. Petter coming off of a brilliant result in Cyprus where he was able to secure a podium. It is unknown if the owner/driver will be able to keep the pace this weekend as the team must watch the risks. If the Xsara is damaged during the race too severe, then we may see Solberg miss an event or two do to his limited bankroll. The interesting point of the pre race press conference was the seemingly jealous stance he took towards Gronholm running the Subaru. There was a hint that perhaps Solberg would like to run the Subaru at some point this year, and feels as though he was robbed of the ride. Granted he was, but I think i prefer Petter in the Xsara. Either way, if any of the front runners put the car over, you will definitely see Petter in the hunt before it is all said and done.
The Rally will again be a great one with the limited cars available, and we will be covering all the results daily here at openpaddock.net. Speaking of results the SSS1 was run this weekend and the results are in:
|Khalid AL QASSIMI
|Peter VAN MERKSTEYN JUNIOR
|Francisco BARROS LEITE