Looking down the Rally Serras de Fafe entry list, Efrén Llarena couldn’t hide his smile.
Back to defend his European Rally Championship title in 2023, Llarena’s task is to make it two.
But to do that, he’s going to need to stave off competition from World Rally Championships, Junior WRC champions, several national champions and the rising crop of stars already embedded within the ERC’s ranks.
Llarena rightly points out that winning this year’s title will be “even more tough” than last year, but that’s exactly what he wants.
After a 2022 season where he undoubtedly drove well – particularly on the Azores with that EPIC final day comeback and powerstage performance – the one criticism (if there was one) that could be held against Llarena was the challenge from his competition wasn’t always consistently sustained.
There can be no such claims lobbied against him this time around.
Much like Emil Lindholm in WRC2, 2023 presents Llarena with an opportunity. An opportunity to prove his worth against some of the very best in the business.
“Yeah, exactly,” Llarena told DirtFish.
“For me when I saw the entry list, honestly I smiled because I really like always to fight with good drivers.
“For sure the target is try to win [but] we know that it will be even more tough because now we will have some WRC2 drivers and a lot of, maybe they’re not such big names but there is also some drivers that are really good like Simon Wagner or Mārtiņš Sesks etc, but yeah let’s see.
“For sure I think we can do it, and for me, to have this kind of entry list with a lot of really good drivers, it’s very motivating.
“I’m fully motivated because I really love to compete with these guys, and for me I’m not afraid of anything I just want to drive and enjoy and for sure try to be as fast as possible.
“For example, if in the first rally if I cannot be with these fast guys, for sure I will try to come back as fast as possible and try to understand why I wasn’t as fast.
“I will develop a lot this season just driving against this kind of competition, but I will put my 100% into all the stages.”
Where that will place him this weekend is anybody’s guess, but the same could be said for the entire field with several drivers either learning a new car, new tires or even the event itself.
Llarena has stability in the form of his continued relationship with MRF Tyres and back-to-back ERC co-driver champion Sara Fernández in the car, but the car they’ll be driving will be new.
It still has a Škoda badge on the hood, but Llarena has got his hands on the updated Fabia RS Rally2 instead of the outgoing Fabia Rally2 evo.
After two tests in the car, the 27-year-old is sure is faster – but he still needs to learn how to get the most out of it.
“We have a really good, strong engine with power from the car, but also on the other hand it’s a little bit more difficult to drive, it’s more Finnish style always oversteering,” Llarena explained.
“The feeling is that OK we have more potential [from the car], more power, but the old car, the Škoda evo, it was very, very easy to drive and this one is more like a racing car.
“It’s faster but you need to adapt to it.”
There’ll be more eyes on Llarena this season than last given he’s the one with the target on his back, but so far he’s doing his best to resist that pressure.
In fact, he insists the feeling “is the same as always” ahead of the season – and that he actually has less pressure upon his shoulders in 2023, even if he’ll proudly be wearing #1 on the doors in such a stacked field this week.
“This year we have many more MRF guys, so the pressure on the good results for MRF is not only on me,” Llarena pointed out.
“So I will just try to enjoy and be as fast as possible.”