Portugal is key to Tänak’s championship challenge

The first conventional gravel rally of this year's WRC offers best opportunity yet to assess M-Sport driver's title chances


For all the talk of this year’s epic five-way fight for the World Rally Championship title, this weekend’s Rally of Portugal could test the strength of one contender’s challenge.

That’s because it should provide the first true opportunity to assess where Ott Tänak and M-Sport are compared to the rest.

Four rounds into 2023, Tänak’s fourth in the championship, four points from the top, with two podium finishes – including victory on Rally Sweden.

But each of the opening four rounds – Monte Carlo, Sweden, México and Croatia – have been unique in their own way.

Portugal, particularly if it stays dry as is currently forecast, is a more conventional event and is often touted as the first real indicator of everybody’s pace during a WRC season. And Tänak’s pace, and feeling, in the Puma Rally1 on gravel will be key with seven loose surface events to come in succession.

After the season’s only gravel rally so far, Tänak felt he and the car were a “mis-match”, but plenty of work has gone in since March to improve the 2019 world champion’s feeling.

Tänak’s not expecting miracles though.

“We are going now into gravel season where things are starting to get more serious in terms of championship competition,” he acknowledged.


“After our pre-event test we are still a bit behind in a few places, but the guys are working hard to find ways for improvements and we still have shakedown to test the final details.

“We did see in México that our competitors are strong on gravel and we have some areas where we need to improve over the next few races.

“We are looking to reduce our gap to the fastest guys and let’s give it a go to stay in the championship fight!”

Technical niggles have interrupted Tänak at times in 2023 – not least in México where turbo trouble on the first gravel stage cost him 12 minutes and any shot at a good result.

That also means it’s hard to get a true read on Tänak’s gravel speed as he was already first on the road on Friday, and then forced to run near the front for the rest of the rally given the time that he had lost.

But Portugal is a very different event to México anyway in its characteristics, and M-Sport’s engineers have shown their ability to improve things from rally to rally already this season.

Tänak’s speed and body language from the first asphalt round, Monte Carlo, and the second in Croatia greatly improved, so a similar rate of progression between the first and second gravel events of the year can be expected.

“We’d hope so,” M-Sport team principal Richard Millener told DirtFish.

“We’re working as much on gravel as we are on Tarmac, but there’s homologation issues we can’t change anything with, so a lot of it is similar things – damper setups, chassis setups, which is where we’re concentrating hard.


“I think we are making progress, and hopefully again we get to see him a little bit more comfortable in Portugal.

“México was a hard one to take in. Because you had the technical straight away it effectively gave us a rubbish road position all weekend, and we know what it’s like when you’re running first on the road, it’s nigh on impossible. And that only makes the job harder because it’s not enjoyable for the team, it’s not enjoyable for the driver.

“So if we get a good start in Portugal – and the road position has actually ended up being pretty good for us – as long as it doesn’t hammer down with rain on the first day, there is a chance that we’ll gain an advantage from that as well.

“But yeah, I think we’re definitely making progress in areas that are making it better for him, but when you come to a rally it’s a very different scenario to testing as well.”


Ultimately Millener feels Tänak is searching for a car that feels more natural for him to drive and he’s therefore able to extract the most out of, rather than one he feels drastically needs to be faster.

“He very much likes a very precise car,” Millener explained, “something he knows exactly what’s going to happen, how it’s going to react, and we need to work on elements of that to make it better so it’s more consistent for him I guess.

“But in terms of the raw speed, I think the results speak for themselves there. The setup will make a difference but not enough to say you’re completely uncompetitive compared to the others.

“I think that’s the key bit for us is that the base car is very good – and we knew it was very good, we saw glimpses of it last year with Séb [Loeb] on the rallies he did, with Craig [Breen] with the two podiums, stage wins, the car is there.

“You can’t change huge items in homologation, so as long as it can set times and Ott’s showing that more consistently this year, I think it goes to underline what we were saying all last year as well.”