Thierry Neuville believes up to six drivers could feasibly win next week’s Rally Portugal – but hasn’t backed himself to be in that fight.
The Hyundai driver is in an unfortunate position for the first gravel World Rally Championship event of the season as he is second in the championship and therefore second onto the stages on Friday’s opening leg.
His deficit to series leader Kalle Rovanperä is 29 points, meaning he’s unlikely to make any significant inroads on his Toyota rival with just a marginally better road position unless Rovanperä encounters problems or makes a mistake.
The loose-surface pace of Neuville’s i20 N Rally1 could also be a prohibitive factor as the team didn’t get as much pre-season test mileage as either Toyota or M-Sport Ford.
As a result, Neuville – a winner in Portugal back in 2018 – has lowered his usual pre-event target of a podium to just a top five.
“I’m going to be second on the road. Some very fast drivers are going to be starting very far behind, so at the end, the challenge will be for us to fight for the top five – or maybe the podium, but I think the realistic goal will be the top five,” he told DirtFish.
“We have I think five or six [drivers] ahead of us starting far back [on the road] who can go for the victory. So it’s gonna be tough but we knew that.
“We knew that already after Sweden. If we messed up here [in Croatia] we’d be in a bad starting position for there.”
Neuville didn’t specifically reference who he sees as potential victory contenders, but it’s likely he’s referring to both of his Hyundai team-mates Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo, the returning Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier, Elfyn Evans and potentially Craig Breen.
Breen is the least likely of the bunch to claim victory as he starts just one position behind Neuville in the running order and hasn’t been to Portugal since 2018.
Monte Carlo winner Loeb could find it tricky as high as fourth on the road too and hasn’t competed on a rally since his triumph back in January.
Tänak, who rejuvenated his season with a battling second place last time out in Croatia, is an obvious contender as a previous Portugal winner – and he would’ve won last year had his Hyundai’s suspension not famously failed on Saturday.
But it’s five-time Portugal winner Ogier, his Toyota team-mate Evans and Rally1 debutant Sordo who start as favorites given that they head onto Friday’s stages eighth, ninth and 12th respectively.
Ogier is confident he hasn’t lost his touch, having stepped away from rallying for four months to compete in the World Endurance Championship program with Richard Mille Racing, the latest round coming last weekend at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I think some drivers have proved that they can perform in many sports. Even a guy like Séb [Loeb] has come back to rally and as we saw in Monte, he won again So nothing is impossible,” Ogier said.
“Of course, it makes it more difficult, that’s clear. If you are focusing on only one target it’s always easier to focus, that’s for sure. Nothing against that. But on the other hand, the expectations are maybe not exactly the same.
“In WEC, I’m aware the probability to be number one there is very, very low. I’m new on the events and it’s more a challenge to myself to see how close I can come to the best of this category.
“But I don’t even dream to be the best there, to be honest. In rally, I still hope that the gap hasn’t been so long now that I still hope that I can be competitive.”