The first gravel rally of the 2022 World Rally Championship season is done and dusted, and there was plenty to digest and analyze following an entertaining Rally Portugal.
Whether it was the disappointing return of the two most successful drivers in history or the rather familiar look to the top of the timesheets, there’s plenty to keep Colin Clark talking.
Here are DirtFish’s ‘voice of rally’ driver ratings from Portugal:
Kalle Rovanperä 9/10
Rally Portugal result: 1st
Well that was one of the few remaining questions about the boy wonder quite emphatically answered. Could he win from the front on gravel rallies? Well did we really have any doubts – of course he could!
Rovanperä is so confident in his own ability right now that he fears nothing. There’s not a rally that scares him, not a situation that fazes and not a driver that he feels can beat him. His performance is at a level that puts constant pressure on his opponents to up their games while he seemingly cruises along effortlessly.
Who does that remind you off? Well take your pick, but it’s spookily similar to Loeb and Ogier at their best. Both those drivers had the ability to find a safe pace that kept them out front while the chasing pack floundered trying to find that extra gear.
And here’s the really scary thing, Rovanperä is nowhere near the complete package yet, he will only continue to get better and better.
We might be only four rounds into the season but quite honestly the title is his to lose. Right now he’s performing at a level above every other driver and unless we see a miracle from Hyundai that gives Tänak and Neuvulle the car they deserve, I don’t see anyone challenging him.
Elfyn Evans 8/10
Rally Portugal result: 2nd
This was the performance that we needed to see from Elfyn four rallies ago. It’s been an agonising and concerning wait to see the Welshman’s season at long last kick into life. Good as this one was, it just wasn’t quite good enough though.
Did Elfyn make the most of his advantageous road position on Friday? Well not when you factor in the pace that Rovanperä showed when he wasn’t sweeping the road clean for all those behind him. Evans was in a difficult position though – he just couldn’t afford another zero points return and when the pressure came from Rovanperä I’m sure this was at the back of his mind.
Championship aspirations that looked so real and so promising coming into Monte now look to be rapidly fading if not all but extinguished. It’s all about wins from now on in for Evans – and you never know, rallying miracles have happened in the past and who’s to say they wont happen again!
Sébastien Ogier 2/10
Rally Portugal result: 51st
One of the most lacklustre performances I’ve ever seen from the champ. He never really got into this one and was struggling even before he super rallied on Saturday morning.
Ogier then compounded his problems by making an uncharacteristic mistake on the second stage of Saturday morning’s loop which led to a second retirement. Very scruffy stuff from the man who’s remembered for being so neat, tidy and consistent.
Really there weren’t too many positives to take from the weekend for Ogier but I guess he’ll feel a little better prepared for his next gravel outing in Kenya having had at least some seat time in Portugal.
He gets one point for going out again on Sunday and one point for giving me a fabulously relaxed and informative interview after he retired on Saturday!
Takamoto Katsuta 7/10
Rally Portugal result: 4th
Katsuta’s steady return to form is very much going in the right direction. This time last year momentum was building towards that glorious first podium in Kenya before his form fell off the cliff and he rendered multiple chassis’ balls of scrap.
It’s hard to overstate the size of the mountain that Katsuta had to climb at the start of this year. He was lucky to hold on to his hard won Toyota seat and the pressure was enormous. And that for me makes this performance all the more impressive.
OK, he ultimately lost out to Sordo on the powerstage but a fourth place finish is a tremendous fillip for a driver that, more than anything, needs to believe that he hasn’t lost that ability to fight at the very top.
Thierry Neuville 7/10
Rally Portugal result: 5th
One of the most tenacious drivers we’ve seen in a long time. He just isn’t prepared to accept defeat and battles fiercely until the bitter end of each event. The car is not a match for Neuville’s talents and attributes and that makes his determination to get every last point possible out of every event all the more remarkable.
Once again an issue with the car compromised Thierry’s chances early in the event and you really have to wonder what he’d be capable of with a car that was competitive and as reliable as the Toyota.
The question going forward though is just how long can Neuville continue to put everything on the line for the cause? It’s not sustainable, something will surely give at some point. Come on Hyundai, Neuville’s gargantuan efforts for the team deserve better – way better.
Ott Tänak 6/10
Rally Portugal result: 6th
When we talk about Rovanperä being almost untouchable, that’s not because we don’t have drivers capable of challenging him in the WRC. It’s because we don’t have drivers in the right cars capable of challenging him.
And Tänak is absolutely the case in point.
It’s devastating to see a man of Ott’s talent and supreme ability so dejected rally after rally. This was supposed to the year where we saw Tänak fighting fro the championship again but I can safely say that’s not going to happen.
When I asked him about what in particular need improving with his car, his one word answer told the story emphatically “everything”. Like Neuvulle, Tänak is way too good to be finishing so far down the standing and nearly five minutes off the winning time.
And like Neuville, you have to wonder just how long Tänak is prepared to put up with this situation.
Dani Sordo 8/10
Rally Portugal result: 3rd
Andrea Adamo told us last season it was going to be difficult for part-time drivers this season because of the complexities of the new Rally1 cars and I think we saw that demonstrated on the first day in Portugal. Sordo had the most advantageous road position but floundered badly and times seemed lost. And all this on one of his favorite events.
But as the weekend progressed and Sordo gained a better undertaking of the nuances of the car underneath him the times starting coming.
Sordo rarely makes mistakes and you might argue that’s because he rarely goes to the absolute max – but what we saw on Sunday was Sordo at his best. It was controlled and it was brilliant. I don’t remember too many occasions where Sordo has successfully hunted down the opposition on the final day as ruthlessly and as effectively as he did here in Portugal.
Sordo is the perfect team player and once again he delivered.
Craig Breen 5/10
Rally Portugal result: 8th
Another faltering weekend for Breen that didn’t really offer too much in the way of positives. Yes he was hampered by dust and brake issues but there’s no getting away from the fact that Breen is not operating at the same level that he was when we saw him secure that string of podiums last year and into the start of this year.
Breen has had to fight tenaciously hard to get to where he is and there is no doubting his ability or his determination to show his worth. But we haven’t really seen his worth yet this year and there is no doubt the pressure is building heading into Sardinia.
But if there’s one thing I know about Craig Breen it’s that he thrives on pressure and has an uncanny ability to use it to his advantage. Let’s see what he can do in Sardinia.
Gus Greensmith 5/10
Rally Portugal result: 19th
Portugal is Gus’ favorite rally and the talk was remarkably bullish before the event got underway. A fabulous run through SS2 gave us all hope that maybe he could deliver on that bullishness but sadly that wasn’t to be the case.
A number of issues dropped him back down the timesheets but as Gus admitted himself, when he has a bad stage, in terms of times, it’s really bad! Finding a higher level of safe is key to the young Englishman’s continuing development and progress towards podium finishes.
Sébastien Loeb 4/10
Rally Portugal result: DNF
I’d love to give Séb more than four, but even leading the rally at the lunchtime service on Friday doesn’t compensate for that very strange accident he had on SS5. I suspect he got caught out a little by the hybrid boost.
The power off the start-line is devastatingly brutal and the temptation is to use to as much of the seven seconds available as possible – the second you lift fractionally, the boost goes. And to me, Loeb kept his foot in for a fraction of a second too long and drifted wide smacking, as he said, just about the only concrete wall on the rally.
Another example of part-time drivers struggling with the demand of these new cars? Maybe. Having said that, Loeb demonstrated in his all too brief appearance here that his is still very much capable and should never be underestimated or written off.
It’s telling that right now, whenever he appears in the M-Sport lineup he is considered the team’s best chance of taking the win. How many more rallies can Mr Wilson persuade him to do this year? Only time will tell.
Adrien Fourmaux 4/10
Rally Portugal result: 9th
Fourmaux has been nothing short of awful this year and the pressure on his young shoulders coming in to this event was intense.
I’m not really sure though what to make of this performance because we know that a driver of his talents can poodle around the stages all day long at that pace without making a mistake. I guess we can say that he’s learned to do as he’s been told by the boss – and at times that’s something that we’ve justifiably doubted.
So job done, quite unspectacularly, for Adrien and another very small step forward in his long road towards rehabilitation.
Pierre-Louis Loubet 7/10
Rally Portugal result: 7th
By far his most ingressive performance in top level machinery to date.
His experience driving the Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC was a torrid one to say the least, so much so that he even began to doubt wether he had the ability to cut it this level. Well this is a new year, he’s got a new car, and he looks like a new driver.
I don’t know how far Loubet can go but I know it’s a whole lot further than he managed last year. Some very encouraging stage times and strong disciplined drive gives Loubet a firm foundation form which to build on for the remainder of the season.