After the snow and ice of Monte, the deep freeze of Sweden, the high altitude of México and the demanding asphalt of Croatia, the World Rally Championship now speeds into a run of more typical gravel events.
This week’s Rally Portugal is the first of seven loose surface events in succession, before the championship switches back to asphalt for the final two rounds.
Road position, then – particularly considering how tight the championship currently is – is about to become incredibly important. As is measuring when to take risks and when to throttle back.
But who can we expect to come out on top in Portugal? Tantalizingly, this rally has served up seven different winners in the past seven editions.
And guess what? Over the last five years, it’s each of the current five championship contenders who have won.
Sébastien Ogier isn’t competing this week, but here’s how the rest of the Rally1 drivers stack up ahead of round five:
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-3rd-5th
Best Portugal result: 1st (2021)
Elfyn Evans reckons he’s drawn the short straw this week, and he could well be right.
Leading the championship can never truly be a bad thing, but the handicap is having to run first on the road on Friday. That’s always been the case, but handed that disadvantage when his points advantage is just one point, you can understand why Evans feels he’s been a bit unlucky.
If it’s dry, winning the rally from this position could be too big an ask for Evans. But he’s been strong in Portugal in the past – second last year and winning the year before.
And there are few other drivers in as good a run of form as Evans at the moment. Let’s see if that Croatia victory makes any difference to his confidence.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-4th-4th
Best Portugal result: 1st (2022)
Here’s an interesting stat for you: Kalle Rovanperä finished fourth just once during his world title-winning season last year. Now, he can’t seem to finish anywhere other than fourth.
It’s been an intriguing start to Rovanperä’s title defense. Clearly he’s playing things a little differently to last year, but write the Toyota star off at your peril.
Rovanperä has lost none of his speed – setup issues, and a more competitive field, appear to have pegged his progress back a little.
If he’s managed to find the right setup in his pre-event test, then the minimum we can expect this week is a much-needed return to the podium.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-9th-1st
Best Portugal result: 1st (2019)
Portugal is the start of a very important run of rallies for Tänak as he continues to push to feel 100% in-tune with his M-Sport Ford Puma.
But if everything feels right, Tänak poses a real threat to the rest. We saw just how dangerous he could be on Saturday afternoon in Croatia when everything was working for him.
Starting third on the road, he has a better road position than most of his championship rivals. And Portugal is an event he’s always enjoyed – winner in 2019 with Toyota and comfortably leading in 2021 with Hyundai before his rear suspension gave way.
There’s plenty at stake, though. If things don’t click, there’ll be plenty of work to do to keep Tänak on the front foot in the title race – and not a lot of time to do it as the rallies are coming thick and fast.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 33rd-2nd-3rd
Best Portugal result: 1st (2018)
Halfway through Croatia Rally, it looked as if Thierry Neuville was going to craft a healthy championship lead for himself. But then that mistake happened, and the 25 points for a win were immediately traded for zero for a retirement.
But the benefit of that is a better road position for Portugal. Fourth (and just 11 points down) will suit Neuville just nicely.
Now what he has to do is make it count.
Despite his 2018 victory, Portugal hasn’t been the kindest of events to Neuville in recent times though – a subdued fifth last year (undone by a driveshaft issue) and a crash the year before.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-DNF-7th
Best Portugal result: 5th (2018)
The dark horse this weekend? Quite possibly.
It’s a different kind of gravel and a different kind of challenge, but we all saw the pace Esapekka Lappi is capable of with his Hyundai on the loose in México.
And starting down in fifth, Lappi will have a cleaner road than the championship pacesetters on the opening day.
He’s down on experience compared to others though, having sat out of Portugal last year and taking it on with an R5 car in 2021. He did win WRC2 comfortably though.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 6th-23rd-DNF
Best Portugal result: 4th (2021 & 2022)
Portugal is a big weekend for Takamoto Katsuta. Back in the manufacturer-registered Toyota, he needs a clean rally – and could do with a confidence-boosting result, too.
Luckily, Katsuta has performed well in Portugal in the past.
His overriding emotion may have been disappointment last year – holding third place up until the last stage when Dani Sordo stole it from him – but fourth was still a good result. And he achieved the same the year before.
Katsuta is very much a confidence driver though. Let’s hope his clean run in Croatia has helped build some of it back up after his two crashes in Sweden and México.
#6 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-7th-DNF
Best Portugal result: 2nd (2021)
A home from home for Dani Sordo. Particularly this year as with the exclusion of Spain from the WRC calendar, Portugal is the closest Sordo will get to a home event in 2023.
That’s bound to spur the Hyundai driver on for what will be a difficult event given recent circumstances.
But on the stages, Sordo should do well. Starting second-to-last of the Rally1 cars, as he often does on this kind of rally, expect Sordo to climb high on Friday and consolidate that position with a measured drive on Saturday and Sunday.
However he has the pace when needed too. Look no further than last year’s stunning Fafe powerstage run as proof.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicolas Gilsoul (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 7th-27th-6th
Best Portugal result: 7th (2022)
It’s been a slightly rocky start to Pierre-Louis Loubet’s first full season as a front-line WRC driver, but he’s pinning a lot of hopes on Portugal being the springboard for better.
And it’s not difficult to understand why.
Last season, Loubet’s strongest events were the hotter, European gravel affairs – Portugal, Sardinia, Acropolis. On all, he benefited from a good start position on Friday, which he will do again this weekend.
So Loubet has a golden opportunity to perform. He just needs to avoid any silly mistakes and a strong result could be on the cards.