Mudbaths and chaos: The story of Portugal 2001

It was an event which made Rally GB look like a balmy summer weekend. But what was it like from the inside?

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When it comes to pure rally fever, few nations match Portugal. For decades it consistently drew enormous crowds, come rain or shine.

In 2001, there was far more rain than shine. The fans still turned up anyway.

It would be the last WRC action the Portuguese fans saw on home soil for six years.

Tommi Mäkinen fended off a late charge from Carlos Sainz, blitzing the final stage to turn a 0.3-second deficit into an 8.6s victory. It was a thrilling end to the rally considering Mäkinen had led almost all the way until the penultimate stage.

But that late Mäkinen-Sainz scrap was not the story of the rally. Weather conditions were the center of attention. Calling the amount of rain which had fallen over the weeks leading up to the rally a deluge would be an understatement.

It made Rally GB that year look like it was based in Costa del Cardiff.

Seven days before Mäkinen clinched his second WRC win of the year, Portugal had been shaken by a national tragedy. The Hintze Ribeiro bridge in Entre-os-Rios – located only 14 miles down the road from Baltar, host of the rally’s opening superspecial – had collapsed, killing 59 people. The heavy rain had increased the volume and current of the river it traversed, fatally compromising the bridge’s support structure.

With rain and flooding levels sufficient to destroy a large bridge in the region, it would have been understandable if the rally had been called off. Had it happened 20 years later, it may well have been.

But that didn’t happen. The rally pressed ahead.

Reactions were mixed.

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“There’s a strong argument that the rally shouldn’t have run because the conditions were not equitable,” reflects George Donaldson, then Mäkinen’s team manager at Mitsubishi.

“It was a dreadful state of affairs. The conditions were horrendous times two. Absolutely awful. It maybe wasn’t smart to be running the rally.”

Day one was the most disrupted. Two stages were outright cancelled, including a pass of the famous Fafe test [pictured above]; those which remained were mudbaths, just not quite as badly rutted as those which had been canned. Getting to the finish line was a challenge in itself; whether you got there quickly or not was mostly down to road position.

As championship leader heading to Portugal, Mäkinen was in the box seat. Those behind him were in trouble.

“Tommi would get a half-decent time on the stages [which were] in bad condition,” explained Donaldson.

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“The World Rally Cars behind him were getting stuck, nearly stopped, and only just managing to keep moving. The cars were bellying out, the wheels fully drooped, going from side-to-side trying to find traction to keep moving.”

The time gaps between drivers on individual stages were huge in some instances. Conditions were so rough and unpredictable that some drivers were losing minutes from their road position alone. Vieira – Cabeceiras, a 16.5-mile test on the rally’s opening day, was a case in point.

The first three drivers on the road – Mäkinen, Rally Sweden winner Harri Rovanperä and Sainz – were first, second and third fastest respectively. Mäkinen was nearly half a minute up on Rovanperä, Sainz dropped 39s to the rally leader and Marcus Grönholm was the only other driver within a minute of the lead Mitsubishi.

Conditions weren’t the worst WRC crews had ever faced – past editions of the Safari Rally and Rally Côte d’Ivoire would have been rougher. But Portugal was a sprint event, not one that was supposed to need Safari-spec cars just to reach the finish.

I had Risto [Mannisenmäki, Mäkinen’s co-driver] on the phone saying they’d been sitting there for 45 minutes and nobody could make a decision, can you find out what’s going on? George Donaldson on the stage delays

The finishing rate on the Safari Rally that year was 36.5%; in Portugal, it was a mere 25.5%. Seventy cars retired from various ailments.

Cars spent a fair amount of time parked up for other reasons too. Stage start delays were rife; the zero cars were struggling to finish stages before the WRC cars were due to come through, and at one point a fire truck became beached in the mud, perched precariously on the edge of the road. Cows on the road were but a footnote in the grand scheme of things.

“Tommi was sitting at the start of every stage – nearly all of them were delayed starts – and I had Risto [Mannisenmäki, Mäkinen’s co-driver] on the phone saying they’d been sitting there for 45 minutes and nobody could make a decision, can you find out what’s going on?” Donaldson remarked.

“We kept asking about zero cars. I remember speaking to Risto, asking if the zero car had gone in or not, because we hadn’t seen it come through after almost an hour. So we’d phone up [the organizers] and say that we’re not happy about the safety going through this stage.”

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Despite the horrendous conditions, delays and multiple stage cancellations, the fans still turned out in their droves regardless. That brought its own set of problems to an event already besieged with weather-induced headaches.

Those fans lined the edges of stages as fervently as ever, some armed with umbrellas in a futile attempt to avoid getting caked in mud by the passing cars. Others were pushing the edge of safety, and sometimes forcing those trying to pen them back into dangerous situations.

Donaldson picks up the story once more.

“I was concerned about Tommi’s safety. He was coming across policemen standing in the middle of the road trying to keep spectators back. He nearly hit a couple of them; he said it was quite close on a few occasions. So, I was reporting that to the organizers. The police were doing a great job, but they needed to be off the road too.”

Conditions improved somewhat for the last day as the incessant rain finally abated. But the rally had been a long, hard slog for all involved.

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When Portugal vanished off the WRC calendar in 2002 it was easy to point the finger at the extremely messy rally a year earlier. Especially as it stayed off-calendar until 2007.

But Donaldson suspects 2001’s troubled edition was not the real reason it disappeared.

“There was a massive focus on getting rid of expensive events that cost a lot of money or that people didn’t like. I think it was also to do with Portugal backing the alternative F1 thing [the Grand Prix World Championship, which was unveiled in late 2001] after losing their F1 race a few years earlier. They angered the FIA with that.

“I don’t think they would have lost it on the basis of what they did [in 2001]. It wasn’t that awful a rally.”

Should the rally have run? Possibly not. “Looking back on it now, in a modern sense I reckon it would be unacceptable,” concludes Donaldson.

Considering how attitudes towards safety have shifted in the intervening two decades, it’s a difficult point to argue against.