Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville is looking to make it three wins in three rallies as the World Rally Championship heads to the iconic and infamous Vodafone Rally de Portugal.
One of the most historic and iconic events on the calendar Portugal celebrates it’s 50th year and to celebrate it the event has a 65 car entry with a record number of 2017 WRC cars.
Toyota and Citroen have expanded their line-ups with Esapekka Lappi making his debut with the Toyota team, which fields a third Toyota Yaris WRC for the first time this season.
At Citroen Khalid Al Qassimi returns to the WRC after more than six months away to make his competitive debut in a new-generation Citroen C3 WRC.
Based around Porto in the north of the country, the stages are similar to the previous round in Argentina in terms of surfaces featuring a mixture of sandy fast flowing roads and rock strewn rough lanes.
The rally will culminate with the legendary Fafe Power stage as thousands of passionate spectators crowd around it’s famous jump hoping to witness a final stage shootout.
If that wasn’t enough the crews will have to deal with an increase in temperature.
Rally Portugal has been moved from its traditional Easter date to the end of May,meaning warmer temperatures than previous years only adding to the challenge.
Yet it is proving popular as the record high entry list shows, but all of the competitors will be asking one question.
Can anyone stop the Neuville steam roller?
Neuville became the first double winner in the season with his last gasp victory in Argentina and is now looking for a hatrick of wins in Portugal.
The Belgian is only 18 points off M-Sport’s Sébastien Ogier in the championship standings but the combination of Neuville-Hyundai has been the quickest all year round and Ogier’s once comfortable gap has been steadily eroded.
However victory against Ogier here will be difficult as Ogier is a four-time winner of this event and another victory this will tie him with Markku Alen for the record number of wins on this event.
Rally Argentina was the first rally this season that Ogier failed to finish on the podium, losing out to his team-mate Ott Tanak for the final spot on the podium.
As a result the reigning World Championship is hoping to use the event as a chance to increase his lead atop of the standings, despite being handicapped by sweeping the road on day one.
“Portugal is an event that I look forward to every year. Julien [co-driver Ingrassia] and I have had a lot of success there and it was where we took our first victory so it holds a lot of special memories,” Ogier said.
“We will push the limits to challenge for the win. Opening the road on the first day will probably make it harder for us, but we come to Portugal with high objectives and a focus on increasing our championship lead once again.”
Tanak meanwhile is enjoying the most successful season in his entire career and just six rounds in he has already amassed the same amount of podiums as he’s had in his entire career prior to the season.
This form and the fact the season is now entering his favourite phrase of the year, four straight gravel rallies that’ll play to his strengths.
“Portugal starts a series of gravel events that I’m really looking forward to. I’ve always enjoyed the Portuguese roads and we’ve shown good speed there in the past,” said Tänak, who has tackled the rally six times before.
“I feel as though we’ve developed a lot recently and should be looking towards the podium at every gravel event to come. That has to be our goal in Portugal and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.
Tanak will certainly be hoping for a better result than last year when he ploughed his Fiesta into the bush fire caused by Hayden Paddon‘s burning Hyundai, narrowly escaping incinerating the Fiesta.
Last year’s winner Kris Meeke is hoping to get his season and his confidence back on track after his two accidents in Argentina, including the biggest accident in his career when the Citroen C3 WRC rolled eight times in a frightening sixth gear crash.
“Argentina was wild – nothing went as planned. It happens sometimes, you just have to put it behind you,” said Meeke.
“I feel okay ahead of Portugal, although I can’t say I’m overflowing with confidence.”
Meeke is a long way behind in the standings so anything less than victory will ensure that Citroen won’t be able to challenge for the title.
Meeke will certainly be hoping to avoid the bumps as his accidents in Mexico and Argentina were caused by the Citroen failing to soak up the impact of a bump.
However a recent test in Sardinia has the potential to have sorted the problems and the team will be hoping to cure this problem so not to be affecting for the rest of the season.
“I think that the work done in our recent test sessions will help us move in the right direction,” says a hopeful Meeke.
Another hopeful competitor will the man who narrowly lost out on victory in Argentina, Elfyn Evans.
As Evans notes in our exclusive interview with him, the similarities in surface with Argentina makes the young Welshman confident that he and his DMACK tyred Ford Fiesta WRC can repeat the performance
Top 4 Championship Contenders Battle for WRC2 Honours
WRC2 also features a bumper line-up with 20 R5 spec cars lining up to do battle.
This line-up also features the four contenders for WRC2 Championship honours facing each other for the first time this season.
The competition will be closest amongst the two Factory Skoda drivers who have won all five events they have competed in.
The current championship leader is Skoda factory driver Pontus Tidemand who has taken victory on all three of the rounds he has entered this season.
Yet this is the first rally where he will take on the man who was victorious in the other two rounds Andreas Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen finished second overall on last year’s event while driving for VW’s World Rally Team, but this year finds himself in a WRC2 Skoda Fabia R5 as he plots a return to a WRCar.
Yet despite Mikkelsen’s reputation, Tidemand is unfazed by the challenge and insists his only goal is to get as many points as possible to increase his championship lead.
But facing the two Skoda drivers will be the M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5 duo Eric Camilli and Teemu Suninen.
Camilli is currently third in the standings and although he has yet to taste victory, the young Frenchman has impressed with some strong performances and has run both Skoda boys close for victory this season.
His team-mate Suninen is only taking part in his third rally for the team but is only 10 points and one position behind his team-mate in the standings.
Only in the M-Sport team this weekend is young British star Gus Greensmith on his second of seven outings with the team.
The Mancunian driver put in a very impressive performance in his last event in Sweden and along with Camilli and Teemu Suninen will debut the lastest R5 Fiesta, so hopes for a good result are high.
WRC3 also returns and current championship leader Raphaël Astier is hoping to extend his championship lead in his Peugeot 208 R2.