The Ford World Rally Team has struck the first blow during Rally Portugal with the Blue Ovals setting the top two times during qualifying. Jari-Matti Latvala led the way with 3m01.884s. That put him clear of second place Petter Solberg by 1.771s. Latvala admitted to taking risks during the 4 kilometer stage in order to take advantage of road conditions. With Portugal being a gravel rally, road position will be tricky to pick. While he could start in the back and allow the other cars to sweep the gravel away, there are night stages and dust could be an issue. Starting in the 8th or 9th position could offer significant vision issues.
Citroen made up the 3rd and 4th positions with Hirvonen just getting the best of Loeb. The Citroen DS3 is still the car to beat on gravel but it looks as though Ford may be catching up in terms of pace. This qualifying in my opinion may come down to weather conditions. So while Citroen did not go fastest, if Ford chooses wrong on road position, the French squad will be there to pick up the pieces.
Ott Tanak from M-Sport World Rally team rounds out the top five.
Other notable events during the qualifying stage did occur. Paulo Nobre rolled his Team MINI Portugal car and did not set a time. Nassir al-Attiyah had a spin on stage after missing a junction in his Qatar World Rally Team DS3 and was the slowest of the cars that could finish.
The Prodrive MINI cars were back in action for the first time since Rally Sweden with Dani Sordo leading the charge in seventh. With his time, he was the fastest of all the MINI cars. I have this car slotted in for a podium as a number of upgrades have been made since it competed last on the snow of Sweden. If you remember, Prodrive changed no less than 100 components on the cars. It will be great to see how the team gets along in Portugal.
The running order was just released and it looks as though Ford have opted to start in the very back. Latvala will go P17 and Solberg P16. No doubt letting all of the cars go through and clear away the gravel before their 1st stage run. In a surprising strategy, Citroen has selected first and second on the road. Hirvonen will clear away the gravel and Loeb will be hot in his tracks as they have done the best they can with their selection. It is apparent the French squad is counting on dust being really bad down the running order.
It will be really interesting to see how the opposite strategies play out for sure. When you have two strategies as different as these, it is always very interesting to see how they play out across the event weekend.