Sebastien Ogier won Rally de Portugal for Citroen last season, he will return for Skoda in 2012 (Photo Credit: Citroen Racing Media)

Sebastien Ogier won Rally de Portugal for Citroen last season, he will return for Skoda in 2012 (Photo Credit: Citroen Racing Media)

The WRC circus will receive a very warm welcome at the next stop in the championship, Portugal. The event has a history that many other countries can only dream of, and the same goes for fan attendance – the rally is well known for pulling in immensely huge crowds, to the point stages have often been cancelled due to overcrowded spectator areas spilling onto the roads.

The legendary Fafe crest, where cars fly through the air for over 70 metres, has drawn in fans from far and wide for years, an amphitheatre similar to Col du Turini in the southern French Alps, or any stretch of Ouninpohja in Finland. It is only suitable then, that this year’s edition was prefaced by the Fafe Rally Special, a non-championship event with all of this year’s top drivers competing. Interestingly, the often dominant Sebastien Loeb was beaten to victory by Petter Solberg, and one wonders if this could be a sign of things to come.

While Portugal may not have the same car-breaking reputation as some of the harsh environments the championship visits, that by no means guarantees a safe passage through the four days of stages facing the crews. The 2001 event demonstrated how this rally can break even the toughest drivers, with four months of storms leading up to the event turning the stages into a mudbath. Out of 92 entrants, only 26 made it to the finish. McRae, Solberg, Loix, Rovanpera, Martin, Blomqvist and Duval among many others were all eliminated, and even those who crawled to the finish were battered and bruised, with 5th placed Francois Delecour over 10 minutes behind rally winner Tommi Makinen demonstrating just how tough the stages had been.

Unlike the chaos of 11 years before, this year’s event has exactly the opposite problem – the stages are bone dry and very dusty. Strategy has been key to plotting for victory in recent years, but for once running first on the road may be a help and not the hinderance it is usually considered to be.

“It’s difficult to say now if we should be first in the start order, or brave enough to run further back,” explained Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala, referring to the dust clouds which are likely to linger on the stages long after drivers pass. “First would ensure a clear run, but the disadvantage would be the slippery loose gravel on the road surface which would be cleared if we start lower down.”

“It depends on the weather, but hanging dust could be an issue and three-minute intervals between cars may not be enough to allow it [the dust] to clear. It’s on the limit, and the organisers may have to consider four minutes.”

Sebastien Loeb (Photo Credit: Citroen Racing Media)

Sebastien Loeb sums up the strategy choice on offer perfectly

A qualifying stage on Wednesday morning will decide who gets to draw first, but world champion Loeb summed up the situation perfectly.

“In conditions like that, is it better to have to sweep the loose gravel but enjoy decent visibility or have a clean racing line but run the risk of having to drive through dust clouds?” he pondered. “Setting a good time in the qualifying stage won't be enough. One thing is for certain, however: an 'average' time and an 'average' starting position of around 7th or 8th place would be a pretty disastrous solution all round.”

It is a rallying cliche nowadays to call Sebastien Loeb the pre-event favourite to take a full-house of points, but with good reason. After the 2001 catastrophe, Rally Portugal did not re-appear on the WRC calendar in 2007, and since then the multiple world champion has won here twice. What would have been his biggest threat is already out of the way; Sebastien Ogier has won here for the last two years, but with the younger Seb driving a SWRC-spec Skoda S2000, the older Seb can instead worry about his new team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. The Finn finally gave his esteemed team-mate a hard time last time out on the gravel stages of Mexico, and with more time under his belt with the DS3, he could be the biggest threat to another full house for Loeb.

Across the service park is Ford, a team that has had an up and down season so far. Team leader Latvala has had a messy season so far – scoring less points than customer car driver Mads Ostberg, who skipped the first round of the championship in Monte Carlo. With Hirvonen departing the team, it was supposed to be his time to mount a title charge, but vastly more experienced team-mate Solberg has been leading the charge for Ford instead. The Norwegian has two podiums so far this season, however the cure to his very lengthy winless streak still eludes him. The often emotional man known as ‘Mr Hollywood’ may have picked up a boost from winning the Fafe Rally Special though, and this shows us that at least the blue camp will not be going down without a fight.

Mini retain their now standard line-up of Armindo Araujo and Pascal Nobre in the points nominated cars, with Dani Sordo and Patrik Sandell in the demoted Prodrive team cars. Crucially though, Prodrive have brought a new B-spec car to this event, with over 100 new parts added to the Countryman WRC. Whether this can launch Sordo and company further up the leaderboard this weekend remains to be seen however.

Jari-Matti Latvala (Photo Credit: World Rally Pics)

Despite his win in Sweden is Jari-Matti Latvala already under pressure from teammate Solberg?

As usual, the works teams have brought a strong group of supporting drivers with them – M-Sport retains de-facto points nominated duo Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tanak, while adding a third car for Dutchman Dennis Kuipers. Fellow countryman Peter van Merksteijn Jr. returns to the Citroen camp alongside regulars Thierry Neuville and Nasser Al-Attiyah, and Mads Ostberg will be trying to defend his surprising fourth place position in the Drivers championship from the pursuing Latvala.

With Proton opting to skip Portugal, all eyes will be on the duel between Craig Breen and Hayden Paddon for SWRC honours. After a disappointing fourth place in Sweden for Paddon, Breen holds a 31 point championship lead over the Aussie, albeit with the latter driver having an event in hand. The ASM Skoda driver has gone to great lengths to ensure success next weekend, upgrading his Fabia S2000’s engine and condicting three days of testing in the lead up to this event.

“Looking at the event itself, we need to win the SWRC category at minimum,” he said. “There are five SWRC drivers in Portugal including category leader Craig Breen, who we expect to be fast. This year is not only about winning the championship; it's also about showcasing our speed – which we did not do in Sweden.”

Class regulars Maciej Oleksowicz and Yazeed Al-Rajhi will also be present, along with series wildcard Marius Aasen, with all three driving Ford Fiestas.

There are already big gaps forming in both championships present in Portugal this week, and especially in the top level WRC class, the chasers need to use the unpredictable nature of the stages to their advantage and claw points back in the race for the title. Loeb may be the king of consistency, but every once in a while this rally throws a curveball not even the best in the world can deal with. Ford will be crossing their fingers they can weather the storm and pick up the pieces of their faltering championship campaign, but if Loeb plays the running order guessing game right, Latvala’s slim title chances may vanish entirely.