The Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is aiming to extend its leads in both the drivers' and manufacturers' standings on this weekend's Rally de Portugal, the third round of the World Rally Championship season.
After Mikko Hirvonen won the debut rally for the Ford Fiesta RS WRC in Sweden in February, the Finn then finished second on Rally Mexico. These results put him nine points clear in the drivers' standings. Ford has a 26 point lead in the manufacturers' standings.
Rally de Portugal is being seen as a key event by many as it will offer the first opportunity to really compare the new World Rally Cars from Ford and Citroen. Ford's Scandinavian drivers were dominant on the snow of Sweden, with Citroen coming out on top in Mexico, where high altitude plays a major part. Portugal, the first European gravel event of the season, is seen as a level playing field and hence a victory here will be extremely important.
Hirvonen has competed on Rally de Portugal on three previous occasions, with a best result of second in 2009. “It’s a challenging rally,” Hirvonen explained. “There are many sections with corners hiding just over crests and it’s tricky, but crucial, to ensure the pace notes are accurate. It’s a rally in which the more you learn the stages, the more you can identify the sections where you can go faster.
“The roads have a hard base and are abrasive, so tyre wear could be an issue, especially if temperatures are high. The nature of the roads is similar to Mexico but the altitude is much lower in Portugal, so we’ll have full power and everything will happen that bit faster. I’m still learning this car and when I hear a pace note, I hesitate a fraction while I understand what speed and gear that note means. My driving isn’t totally instinctive yet.”
Teammate Jari-Matti Latvala has also started the rally three times, but has crashed out on the last two occasions. “It’s the most difficult gravel rally of the season,” said Latvala. “The roads are narrow with many blind crests. Trees and stones line the stages, both on the inside of corners where a driver looks to make cuts, and on the outside where a car slides wide if a driver approaches too quickly. The roads have a clay surface which is hard in dry conditions and demanding on tyres. However, if it rains they quickly become muddy and slippery.”
The accident that put Latvala out of the 2009 Rally de Portugal was one of the biggest in recent times, as the Finn rolled his Ford multiple times down a steep hillside. He would like to put these behind him as he chases a top result in Portugal.
“Crashes are part of the sport and my accidents in Portugal are in the past,” he said. “I prefer to focus on the future rather than what happened previously.”
There will be ten of the Ford Fiesta RS WRCs competing in Portugal. After missing Rally Mexico which was not part of his programme for 2011, Khalid Al-Qassimi will be looking to improve on his best result in Portgual of eighth in 2009. Driving the factory team's third car, he is registered to score points for Team Abu Dhabi.
“It’s great to be back after missing Rally Mexico,” said the Emirati driver. “The season opener in Sweden proved highly challenging but I managed to pick up a point which is encouraging moving into Portugal. The historic Portuguese event is full of heritage and one of my favourite rallies on the calendar. I feel more accustomed to the conditions with the warm climate and gravel tracks that I’ve grown up with in Abu Dhabi. Hopefully I can build on these past experiences to produce another points-winning effort.”
The M-Sport Stobart Ford team has entered three cars for Portugal, with Norwegians Henning Solberg and Mads Ostberg registered to score manufacturers' points for the team. Solberg will be hoping to repeat the top-five finish he achieved in Portugal in 2008.
“We've come from a really tough event so it'll be good to go to Portugal where I will feel a lot more confident and I'm more familiar with the roads,” said Henning. “We can challenge a top-five result next week and as always I will work as hard as I can to get some good points for the team.”
Ostberg has scored points twice on previous visits to Portugal when he was driving a privateer Subaru. “It will be my fourth time there and I'm really looking forward to it as it's definitely one of my favourite rallies. It'll be different from Mexico as I was trying to learn as much as I could at that event, but this time I will be wanting to push a lot more as I already know the stages. I want to get closer to the factory drivers at this rally so I'll be looking to set some fast times from the outset and I'll be aiming for a top-five finish.”
Matthew Wilson will be entered in a third car by the team. “I always enjoy going to Portugal as I know the stages really well and there's always a great buzz from start to finish. There's always a fantastic atmosphere in Portugal and the fans are always very supportive. If it's dry next week the grip should be good, but if it does rain then that can make it really difficult on some of the stages. I'm hoping that it stays dry – the consistent grip levels always help with confidence.”
Federico Villagra will be entered by the Munchi's World Rally Team. He is looking forward to Portugal after a tough debut in the Fiesta RS WRC in Mexico. “We had a test there in February so the road conditions on the stages should be similar to what we experienced on the test. Mexico was a rally where we wanted to get as many kilometres under our belt as possible. We experimented a lot with different ride-heights and set-ups, so it was very useful to return for the final two days after our retirement to learn as much as we could.”
Other entries in Fiestas will be Ken Block for the Monster World Rally Team, and Dennis Kuipers for the FERM Power Tools World Rally Team. Local ace and Super 2000 regular Bernardo Sousa will make his World Rally Car debut for Team Quinta Do Lorde as a one-off entry on his home event before his SWRC campaign gets underway in Jordan.