‘Whoever dominates the Gravel wins the Championship.’ Depending on the road surface, there are various types of rallies in WRC, but the most important is still the gravel rally. The reason is simple: Gravel courses make up more than half. WRC so far went through asphalt mixed with ice in Monte Carlo, the full snow rally in Sweden, the first tarmac of the season in Croatia, and finally, in 2022, encountered the gravel in Portugal. 7 out of 13 rounds scheduled to take place this year - including Portugal, Italy, Kenya, Estonia, Finland, Greece, and New Zealand - are gravel. Portugal, the starting point, is a crucial round to test the true power of new models.
Rally Portugal, which started in 1967, has a long history and tradition even among WRCs, having been in the WRC for 29 years since 1973. It left WRC for a while in the early 2000s, but returned in 2007 and is still popular. This year too, the headquarters is located in Matosinhos, north of the beautiful port city of Porto, and the stages have not changed much.
The course is fast and technical. Even a huge amount of dust that blocks the view is an obstacle that cannot be overlooked. If drivers run the same course repeatedly, the soil is dug out, and sharp rocks or stones are exposed, which quickly wears out the tires, making tire maintenance difficult.
Hyundai Motorsport included Ott Tanak, Dani Sordo, and Thierry Neuville, who recorded a double podium in Croatia. Unlike Neuville and Tanak, who have been participating continuously since the opening, this is Sordo’s first race in his Rally 1 car with Oliver Solberg. Still, he has shown good performances in Portugal, recording 5 podiums so far, including 2nd place last year. Solberg participated in WRC2 with Teemu Suninen.
Meanwhile, the Toyota team reintroduced Kalle Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans, Takamoto Katsuta, and defending champion Sébastien Ogier. The Ford team has prepared five Rally 1 cars Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux, Gus Greensmith, Pierre-Louis Loubet, and veteran Sébastien Loeb. However, only the points earned by 3 drivers per team out of 12 Rally 1 participants are added to the Manufacturer’s Championship points (for the top 2 players). This includes Neuville, Tanak, Sordo in Hyundai, Rovanpera, Ogier, Evans in Toyota, and Breen, Loeb, Fourmaux in Ford.
On Thursday evening, after the opening ceremony in Portugal’s fourth city, Coimbra, the race began at the 2.82km SSS (Super Special Stage) just outside the city center. Neuville stole the lead on a special course on the road near the University of Coimbra playground. Tanak came in second, Breen in third, followed by Greensmith, Ogier, and Rovanpera. But the real Rally Portugal hasn’t started yet.
On Friday, the contestants moved east, followed by two iterations of three stages around Arganil, followed by SS8 Mortágua, ending the day at SS9 Lousada. The Lousada stage, a rallycross stadium, is relatively short as it is 2.82km-long, but it is fun to watch because two cars start side by side.
On this day, the eight stages on this day were 121.67km-long, which is not very long. However, these stages are marathon sections with unavailable service in the middle, so even small trouble found in the morning can greatly impact the race. Drivers and their co-drivers have to repair the car with only the tools in the car until they finish the seven stages and return to the service park.
Evans took the lead on the dusty gravel stage. He won the Friday opening - SS2 and SS3 - and Tanak followed closely. The first Gravel Rally of the season was still harsh. It was just as tricky for the nine-time champion Loeb. He, who quickly entered the left corner in SS5, hit the wall on the right and broke the rear wheel, making it impossible to drive anymore. Tires were also an issue. According to Pirelli, the durability and strength of the Scorpion tires were improved for the new hybrid car, but winners such as Ogier, Tanak, and Breen suffered from punctures or tires coming off the rim.
Neuville, who bega in 8th place, sped up and became 2nd place after SS6. However, a driveshaft breakage cost him a lot of time at the SS8 and drifted far away from the trophy. In addition, Tanak, who struggled with gearbox problems, was more than three minutes away from the lead after two punctures. Sordo became the only hope for Hyundai. Katsuta, Greensmith, Loubet, Neuville, Breen, Fourmaux, and Tanak finished Friday’s race in that order.
On Saturday, the drivers finished SSS16 in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, after going through six stages in the Cabrera Mountains northeast of beautiful Matosinhos. Their journey on this day was 164.98 km long. The Amarante stage for the SS12 and SS15 is 37.24km-long, the longest of the round.
In the morning, Evans and Rovanpera competed for the lead. In addition, Katsuta, who was chasing Sordo, rose to third in SS12, making Toyota take the top three. The competition peaked in the afternoon. In particular, Rovanpera, who narrowed the gap with Evans by 6.6 seconds in SS14, took the lead in SS15. Evans, who started four minutes later than Rovanpera in the rain, had to fight a muddy road surface. Neuville set an overwhelming record at SS15 but finished fifth with a one-minute gap with Sordo.
It was a very difficult day for the Ford team. Loubet, who had chosen hard tires, could not boost the pace. Greensmith retired after crashing into a bank and breaking the steering. Thanks to this, Tanak moved up to 8th place. Rovanpera finished Saturday in the lead, and Evans finished second by 5.7 seconds. Then, it was followed by Katsuta, Sordo, Neuville, Breen, Loubet, Tanak, and Fourmaux. Sordo recorded a 5.7 second-gap with Katsuta in third, and the chance for the podium remained.
The drivers went through the five stages, which were 48.87km-long in total. In particular, Fafe, where SS19 and the final SS21 (power stage) are held, is a legendary stage that has existed since the first WRC Portugal Rally. Although the length is only 11.18 km, the surroundings are spectacular and provide a wonderful scene. Especially at the end of the stage, the course from the hill to the Pedra Sentada jump is the highlight of Rally Portugal, and the audience gathered to see its beauty.
Rovanpera got a little closer to the championship title with a gap of 8.4 seconds with Evans after conquering the opening SS17. Like Rovanpera and Evans competing for the championship, the tension between Katsuta and Sordo for the third spot on the podium was fierce - only 5.7 seconds. Sordo, who started Sunday in fourth place, reduced the gap to 1.2 seconds in SS17. And it became 0.9 seconds in SS18 and 0.8 seconds in the next SS19, but then it widened to 2.2 seconds in SS20.
Now all that's left is the final stage. Rovanpera finished with the lead, and Sordo finished second on the stage, beating Katsuta and moving up to third. In Portugal, an extreme survival game, Rovanpera snatched his third win of the season. Evans finished second by 15.2 seconds. Finally, despite the new Rally 1 car, Hyundai's Sordo took the podium with a successful last-minute takeover. The time difference with Katsuta was only 2.1 seconds. Neuville and Tanak reached 5th and 6th, followed by Loubet, Breen and Fourmaux. On Sunday morning, Tanak, who started in 8th place, managed to take over two drivers with a top score in both stages. On the other hand, Neuville could not speed up at the power stage due to the damage to aerodynamic parts.
Adding points, Rovanpera took the lead in the Drivers' Championship with 106 points, while Neuville maintained second with 60 points. Katsuta took 3rd, Tanak 4th, and Evans 5th. Speaking of the team championship table, Toyota leads with 175 points, and Hyundai follows with 116 points.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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