The first gravel round of the 2021 World Rally Championship season is almost upon us: Rally Portugal.
After two brand-new rounds, Portugal may be a known quantity but the rally has a habit of throwing up uncertain results. Over the last five years, five different drivers have won for five different teams.
Missing from the calendar last year due to COVID-19 but returning in 2021, Portugal will be quickly followed by Sardinia in Italy two weeks later so any big mistake could have large ramifications.
Three rounds into the season, it’s Sébastien Ogier who leads the way with an eight-point advantage over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville; Ogier winning both the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Croatia as Ott Tänak claimed the spoils on Arctic Rally Finland.
So who’s hot and who’s not heading into Portugal? Here is DirtFish’s form guide to round four of the season.
#1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-20th-1st
Last 3 Portugal results: 3rd-DNF-1st
As already mentioned, Ogier is arguably the WRC’s form man right now having won two of the first three events this year and three of the last four if we stretch back to the 2020 season finale at Monza. But all three of those victories have been on asphalt.
Ogier’s gravel pace cannot be questioned though. He’s already won (in México) with the Yaris on this surface and Portugal is a very happy hunting ground for the seven-time champion who, if he wins this year, will edge clear of Markku Alén as the driver with the most Rally Portugal victories in history (six).
The massive handicap will be Friday morning though. Running first on the road for the first few stages will likely blunt Ogier’s charge and give some of his other rivals – mainly Tänak or Rovanperä – an edge. But if anyone can overturn that disadvantage, it’s Ogier.
#6 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-3rd-1st
Last 3 Portugal results: 23rd-4th-3rd
Could we be looking at the event winner here? Quite possibly…
There are several things working in Dani Sordo’s favor this week. Chiefly, his road position. If conditions remain dry, Sordo’s position of ninth in the starting order – ahead of only Pierre-Louis Loubet – will be perfect, and he’s more than capable of using that to his advantage. Secondly, Sordo’s form on this event has been red-hot in the past. In 2019 for example he was leading before he ran into a fuel issue with his Hyundai.
But there are a couple of caveats. Sordo isn’t as match sharp as the rest, having not started a rally since January, and this weekend will also be his first with new co-driver Borja Rozada.
However if he can’t win Rally Spain, Portugal is the one Sordo desperately wants to tick off. Write him off at your peril.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 29th-39th-16th
Last 3 Portugal results (all WRC2): 1st-4th-10th
Pressure is mounting on young Loubet’s shoulders. He badly needs a result and an error-free run after yet another mistake on Rally Croatia brought his rally to a premature end.
Things have changed, with Florian Haut-Labourdette replacing Vincent Landais in the co-driver’s seat. It remains to be seen what effect this may have, but sometimes tweaking details can pay a huge dividend.
This week will be Loubet’s first in Portugal with the World Rally Car, but his previous form on this event is strong. Ninth overall and first in WRC2 two years ago in a Škoda is a strong indication of what the 24-year-old is capable of.
As a brief side note, we feel sorry for whoever has to squeeze these two names onto the small side window of the 2C Competition Hyundai…
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-1st-DNF
Last 3 Portugal results: 1st-DNF-4th
Tänak was seemingly struck by the Hyundai asphalt curse last month, struggling to unlock every last ounce of potential out of the i20 Coupe WRC. But Portugal is a return to gravel, and the 2019 world champion could have a strong hand to play.
Fourth on the road is a far better position than early championship leaders Ogier and Thierry Neuville, and Tänak is another to have performed well on the Portuguese roads in the past with victory in 2019, the last time the event ran.
A 21-point championship deficit might seem quite steep after just three rounds, but Tänak has a golden opportunity to take massive chunks out of that margin over the next two rounds as he’s unlikely to be at the front of the running order on either. Expect him to make it count this week and be on the podium at the very least.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-3rd-3rd
Last 3 Portugal results: 2nd-1st-2nd
It would be a bit flippant to claim Thierry Neuville is nailed on for third place this weekend, but he and Martijn Wydaeghe have certainly developed a habit of finishing on the podium’s lowest step. In fact, that’s the only position they’ve secured in the WRC since partnering at the start of the season.
Clearly, Neuville is capable of more than that though, he is capable of winning – as he did in Portugal back in 2018. Like Ogier though, his road position (second) and how much time that costs him on Friday morning could dictate his weekend.
Neuville has been one of the low-key stars of the 2021 season to date. Although he arguably should have won in Croatia, he has looked the quickest of the Hyundai drivers across the board – despite the challenge of a new co-driver – and has found a good level of consistency.
Expect a big attack, but not at all costs like you might have seen a few years ago.
#16 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-2nd(WRC2)-4th(WRC2)
Last 3 Portugal results: N/A
What can we expect from Adrien Fourmaux this week? Miracles like we saw in Croatia, or a sub-par plummet back down to earth?
The reality probably lies somewhere in between. Fourmaux now has more experience in the Fiesta WRC, but he has no experience with it on gravel and indeed no prior experience of this event either.
Contrary to popular belief, Fourmaux claims gravel is his favorite surface though and he has shown a strong turn of pace on the loose in WRC2 over the last 12 months, so he could yet be a dark horse again this week. He certainly has a good road position of eighth on the first morning.
The target will be a consistent run to the finish with, hopefully, more eye-catching stage times.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 6th-6th-6th
Last 3 Portugal results (all WRC2): 13th-13th-14th
Takamoto Katsuta has never been in a richer vein of form; so much so that the suggestion that he could become a fully blown Toyota works driver next year with Ogier’s retirement no longer seems absurd.
Like Neuville, Katsuta has been a model of consistency in 2021 and has only finished in the one position all year in the WRC. For the Japanese, that’s sixth. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Katsuta’s season has been his new turn of pace with two stage wins in Croatia.
Katsuta is yet to secure a strong result on gravel in the Yaris WRC though; his last two events ending on his roof and his previous Portuguese exploits being some less than inspiring 13th and 14th places in WRC2.
It would be surprising if that record wasn’t set straight this week.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-5th-2nd
Last 3 Portugal results: 5th-2nd-6th
This isn’t the first time Elfyn Evans heads to Portugal on the back of gut-wrenching final stage defeat. Team-mate Ogier obviously nicked the win in Croatia from him by 0.6 seconds, and four years ago in 2017 Evans started the Portuguese round fresh from being edged by Thierry Neuville in Argentina by 0.7s.
Forget the statistics though, Evans just needs to beat Ogier this weekend doesn’t he? Let’s be honest. He certainly backs himself to do so but he needs to make use of that extra car between himself and Ogier on the road on Friday morning and make it impossible for the seven-time champion to potentially catch him later on in the event.
His performances in Portugal have been sold in the past; the undeniable highlight being second spot behind Neuville in ’18. The same would do just fine this year, but Evans and Scott Martin are without a win in six now. They’d love to put that right.
#44 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th-9th-8th
Last 3 Portugal results: DNF-8th(WRC2)-6th(WRC2)
Gus Greensmith looked to turn a corner in Croatia. Yes, his M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC had that little bit extra punch with an upgraded engine and yes, he was beaten by rookie team-mate Fourmaux. But his pace and consistency was a marked improvement over recent rallies, so the question is: can he keep the run going in Portugal?
In theory, there isn’t a better event for Greensmith and Chris Patterson to be heading to to build on that encouraging debut performance together last month. It’s Greensmith’s favorite on the calendar, and the only one he’s started before in a World Rally Car.
The British crew will start seventh on the road too, so should enjoy a cleaner road than most. As such, Greensmith believes a top five result “is realistic” but he might need to rely on problems for others to achieve it.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-2nd-4th
Last 3 Portugal results (all WRC2): 1st-N/A
Rovanperä came back down to earth with a rather literal bang last month after the high of leading the world championship in February. It was a big crash – a lot bigger than it perhaps looked – and one that could dent a driver’s confidence.
Not Rovanperä though. The Finn is made of stern stuff, but will know he needs to bounce back strongly this week to get his season and title charge back on track.
The 20-year-old has never been to Portugal before in a World Rally Car and has actually only competed here once before; but he was sublime, finishing first in WRC2 by over a minute and a splendid sixth overall on the debut of the Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
For all the justified hype surrounding Rovanperä, it’s easy to forget he hasn’t actually won a world rally yet. The quick events – Estonia, Finland etc – are touted as his obvious targets but might he do it here? Starting from fifth on the road on Friday, he certainly has a more than fighting chance…