The fifth round of the WRC was held in Portugal - Vodafone Rally de Portugal - from May 11 to 14. The traditional event, which runs on winding dirt roads on high mountain ridges, has enjoyed such high popularity that it has become the ‘World’s Best Rally’ five times. In 1973, when the WRC first started, Rally Portugal was held as the third following the opening round Monte Carlo and the second round in Sweden. It started out as a regional event in 1967 and became a member of the WRC in 1973, and is still held today except for 2002-2006.
Portugal’s passionate crowd gives the racers great power, but sometimes causes problems; A major accident occurred in the Group B era, when the performance of race cars was greatly improved. In 1986, Joaquim Santos, driving a Ford RS200, ran into a crowd on the roadside while avoiding a person on the road, causing more than 30 casualties, including three deaths. This became the cue for the end of Group B. Of course, these days, the crowd is controlled with a sufficient distance, and the stability of the rally car has also improved dramatically. Nevertheless, accidents can happen suddenly at any time in a rally.
This year’s Rally Portugal, like last year, has set up its Rally headquarters in Matosinhos, just above Porto, the main port wine region. Rally Portugal, which was held in the Algarve in the southernmost part of Portugal from 2007 to 2014, returned to Matosinhos in 2015. Among active drivers, Sébastien Ogier and Finnish Markku Alén hold the record for most wins (5 times). But these days Ogier is only seen at some races after his retirement. In the last five years, Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans, Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville and Ogier have each won once in Portugal, without the dominance of a single driver.
Roads covered with soft sand generate a lot of dust every time the car runs. After the cars in front clear the dirt from the surface, the rough gravels are revealed and the road surface changes quickly. So the race cars have high ground clearance. This year, the race was held on nineteen SSs, 329.06km-long, two stages shorter than last year. The total distance is 1,307.19 km.
Hyundai Motorsport has yet to fully recover from the effects of the tragic accident in Croatia. Not only was it so sudden, but the accident had a huge impact on the driver rotation this season. This time in Portugal, Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Dani Sordo are on the list.
Neuville took an early lead at the Rally Croatia, but unfortunately retired after colliding with a concrete structure and plunged into 5th place in championship points. It was quite disappointing for Neuville, who was reaching out for the championship. Neuville, who confirmed the gravel performance of his i20 N Rally 1 Hybrid race car in Mexico this year, showed a strong will to win again, recalling his victory in Portugal in 2018.
Lappi gave the gift of a podium finish when his team was struggling in Croatia, but he needs to aim higher for the championship title. Lappi, who made his WRC debut in Portugal as one of Toyota’s members in 2017, did not compete in Portugal last year, and his best finish in Portugal was 5th in 2018. Compared to the other racers, he has less experience, so he needs to be more careful in this round.
Sordo was given the team’s third race car; At first, Sordo was supposed to join in Portugal. However, it is not yet known whether he will take over the deceased’s share or whether the team will recruit a new driver. Sordo has shown good results in Portugal enough to consistently stand on the podium until recently, with 2nd place in 2021 and 3rd place in 2022. Also, Kris Meeke, from Breen’s hometown, has decided to take over the Hyundai WRC2 program in Portugal. Breen’s colleague, James Fulton, is his co-driver.
Kalle Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans, and Takamoto Katsuta are Toyota racers. Evans’ win in Croatia moved him up to second in the championship rankings. However, leader Ogier was absent this time, so he was the first to run the course and clean the road. Rovanpera, who won the Drivers’ Championship title last year, has not been able to finish on the podium since marking second place at the ceremonial start, but is still earning points steadily, finishing fourth in a row. M-Sport Ford only has Ott Tanak and Pierre-Louis Loubet on the list, just like it did at Round 4. The 2019 Portuguese winner Tanak is keeping his pace well - winning the Swedish rally this season and finishing second in Croatia.
After an Opening Ceremony in Portugal’s fourth-largest city, Coimbra, on Thursday evening, racers traveled east on Friday morning to race in Lousã. They had to go through eight 120.59km-long stages on the day. They repeated three stages in the morning and afternoon, then via the SS7 Mortágua and finished the day in Figueira da Foz, not seen for a long time since 1997.
SS8 Figueira da Foz is a short-distance stage that utilizes beachside parking lots and roads. On this day, there is no lunch service - vehicle maintenance by team experts - so drivers and co-drivers have to deal with problems along the way. Considering that a lot of dust makes visibility worse, the start interval of each rally car has been adjusted from 3 to 4 minutes.
Loubet recorded a surprise top-time on the 12.03km-long opening stage on Friday morning. Although he took advantage of being able to run on cleaner roads by starting later than other drivers, he eventually pushed Sordo out by 0.3 seconds and became the overall leader. And Tanak conquered the next stage. After that, Rovanpera and Lappi also recorded top times, and a fierce battle for the lead took place. At the end of the three morning stages, Tanak took the lead, followed by Rovanpera, Sordo, Neuville and Evans.
In the afternoon, Rovanpera took both SS5 and SS6 to secure the overall lead. On the other hand, Katsuta retired from SS3 due to generator problems. The M-Sport Ford, which started off fresh in the morning, started to suffer right away. Loubet was pushed to the back row after his car caught fire, while Tanak also lost time with a flat tire on SS4. Tanak had a water pump problem that plagued him all day and, in addition, he had no spare tire, so he couldn’t drive confidently. At SS7 Mortagua, Evans’ car was badly damaged. The damage was so severe that it seemed impossible to return on Saturday.
Two cars from the Toyota team retired, but the Rovanpera took the overall lead. Sordo took second place by 10.8 seconds and followed closely behind with a top time on SS8. Again, with a gap of 15 seconds, Neuville was in third, with Loubet in fourth. Lappi in fifth place was just 27 seconds behind the leader. Tanak was sixth, followed by WRC2’s Oliver Solberg, Gus Greensmith, Yohan Rossel and Andreas Mikkelson aiming for points.
On Saturday, the racers repeated three stages around Serra da Cabreira in the northeast of Matosinhos, then finished the day at the rallycross circuit in Lousada. Even with 7 stages, one less than yesterday, the total distance was 148.88km as the courses were relatively long. Instead, lunch service was available. The 37.24km-long SS10 Amarante is the longest of the races, and the relatively short 8.91km-long SS11 Felgueiras is tricky with a variety of road surfaces and narrow roads that go up and down non-stop. Within the Rallycross circuit, the side-by-side Lousada Super Special Stage thrills the crowd and is the most popular Rally Portugal.
Rovanpera not only showed an overwhelming pace in the opening SS9, but also recorded four consecutive top times. Behind him, the Hyundai trio of Sordo, Lappi, and Neuville pursued fiercely, but the gap only got widened. Loubet, who had been pushed back to 5th, had to retire at the notorious SS10 Amarante; His car collided with a tree inside the corner, then bounced off and crashed into a dirt wall and came to a halt.
Unlike the lonely Rovanpera, Hyundai’s trio fought together for second place. At the end of the morning (SS9-SS11), the time difference between Sordo, Lappi and Neuville was only 5 seconds. Neuville finally overtook Lappi to move into third on the SS13 Amarante. At Saturday’s end, with a gap of almost a minute, Rovanpera was in the lead. Sordo in second and Neuville in third were 11.1 seconds apart. Lappi in fourth place was only 2.3 seconds behind Neuville. Tanak, who was fifth after Loubet’s retirement, was more than a minute away from Lappi. Katsuta, who returned to the course after fixing the wrecked car, did not go the way he had hoped, with dust getting into the car and making it difficult to secure his vision. In WRC2, Solberg has been leading since day one.
On Sunday, May 14, the racers set off from SS16 Paredes, passed the famous Fafe and Cabeceiras de Basto, and finished the day back in Fafe. Competitors battled through the 59.59km-long SS16 to SS19. The 15km-long opening stage, Paredes, was built using a complex unpaved road on a low hill next to the kart track.
However, Neuville’s chances of finishing on the podium were slim when he suddenly couldn’t get up to speed. After the race, he said in an interview that there was a problem with the turbocharger. Rovanpera came one step closer to winning with a second place on the stage. Solberg lost WRC2 lead (6th overall) after penalty for performing “doughnuts,” putting himself behind Greensmith. This kind of exhibition driving is common on super special stages where large crowds gather, but this year Portugal banned it due to lack of space; still, the Swede breached the regulation.
The next stage is Fafe, the highlight of the day and the icon of Rally Portugal. As the racers struggle up the mountain pass at over 700m above sea level, a huge crowd emerges in wide view as they exit the forest at the end of the course. In particular, the jump right before the finish is the highlight of Rally Portugal. SS17 and Power Stage/SS19 are held here. Rovanpera caught both of these SSs and took the trophy. The defending champion has confirmed his first win this season.
The second and third places were taken by Hyundai’s Sordo and Lappi. The Hyundai trio competed for second place while chasing Rovanpera, but were unable to stop the leader in the end. Moreover, Neuville, who was supposed to challenge for the driver’s championship, failed to stand on the podium due to a breakdown at the last minute. Tanak, who was suffering from hybrid trouble, took advantage and rose to 4th place. In WRC2, Greensmith won the championship (6th overall), followed by Solberg and Mikkelson, who earned points respectively.
As a result, the driver’s championship standings have changed a lot. Rovanpera moved into the lead and Tanak moved into second place. Neuville, Lappi and Sordo finished fifth through seventh respectively. In terms of team points, the gap widened slightly with Toyota scoring 201 points and Hyundai scoring 169 points. Round 6, the end of the first half of the season, will be held in Italy from June 1st to 4th. Sardinia, a picturesque island in the Mediterranean Sea, is notorious for its rough roads and sweltering heat. It will then be followed by the Safari Rally (June 22-25) in Kenya, South Africa.
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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