Oliver Solberg, Kris Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen, Gus Greensmith, Teemu Suninen, Adrien Fourmaux…
Nope, we aren’t listing drivers in the top class of the World Rally Championship. These are the headline stars of WRC2 for this weekend’s Rally of Portugal.
Lauding the quality of a WRC2 entry, particularly in 2023, is nothing new, but the addition of Meeke and return of Mikkelsen make this, arguably, the best lineup the WRC’s support class has ever had.
The only driver we’re really missing is reigning champion Emil Lindholm who, intriguingly, has skipped the event in order to complete his master’s degree in finance.
So as such, we’re going to break the norm.
Normally form guides ahead of a WRC event are reserved only for the Rally1 drivers, but we couldn’t ignore this cast of Rally2 pilots who will attract just as much attention as the headline act.
Here, therefore, is a form guide to the leading WRC2 contenders this weekend in Portugal:
#20 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Andersson (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2)
Championship position: 5th
Last 3 WRC2 results: 6th-1st-N/A
Best Portugal result: 5th (2021)
He may be British, but Gus Greensmith considers Portugal as like a home event given it was the first WRC rally that he did – and he adores the event too.
Driving for M-Sport Ford in the WRC’s top class he’s shone well in the past as well, securing fifth in 2021 and running as high as second in 2022 before the event got away from him.
There’s no reason to expect anything less than a challenge for victory from Greensmith in Portugal given how quickly he’s adapted to Škoda’s Fabia RS Rally2, and the fact he won the only gravel event of the WRC2 season so far in México.
But above anything else, Portugal should give us a real indication of where Greensmith’s level is up against such rapid and esteemed competition.
#21 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2)
Championship position: 3rd
Last 3 WRC2 results: 3rd-1st-25th
Best Portugal result: 11th (2021)
The fastest driver over the course of the WRC2 season so far, Oliver Solberg is a real favorite for victory.
Rally of Portugal has never been his happiest hunting ground, but that’s no reason to believe Solberg can’t succeed in 2023.
The 21-year-old has impressed many already this year with how he has handled the step down to WRC2 after a Hyundai Motorsport program in 2022. Winning this weekend, up against such a star-studded field, would only add to the theory that Solberg is at the head of the queue to earn a return to Rally1.
With a very good car (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2) and plenty of experience (he’s started every single WRC event this year so far), Solberg has everything he needs to deliver.
#23 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally2)
Championship position: 16th
Last 3 WRC2 results: 6th-2nd-1st
Best Portugal result: 3rd (2018)
The forgotten man of WRC2? Quite probably.
Teemu Suninen’s Rally Sweden didn’t go as planned after what appeared to be a team mistake severely restricted his Hyundai’s engine power on one Friday stage and left him fighting back to claim sixth in WRC2.
But before that he had been firmly in the podium fight, and can be expected to be doing the same in Portugal.
A previous overall podium finisher in Matosinhos (and leader in WRC2 until the powerstage last year), Suninen and the i20 N Rally2 feel like an underdog package amongst this Fabia-infested field. But all underdogs have their day…
#24 Andreas Mikkelsen/Torstein Eriksen (Škoda Fabia RS Rally2)
Championship position: N/A
Last 3 WRC2 results: 7th-2nd-1st
Best Portugal result: 2nd (2016)
The return of the Mack. Or the Mikk, rather.
Awful puns aside, Andreas Mikkelsen’s return to WRC2 is big-ticket news for the support category, and likely rather worrying for his rivals.
Although he missed out on the title last year, Mikkelsen is still widely regarded as the benchmark driver in Rally2 and now he’s back, equipped with the new Škoda he had a big hand in developing.
But Mikkelsen isn’t quite as match-fit as some others, having not driven in the WRC since the Acropolis last September. But he did contest the Azores Rally last month, and dominated WRC2 in Portugal last year before he was forced to retire with an engine-related issue.
Certainly one to watch closely this week.
#25 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Fiesta Rally2)
Championship position: 6th
Last 3 WRC2 results: 4th-7th-5th
Best Portugal result: 6th (2021)
The first on the list that may find it slightly harder to fight for the win, but that’s no fault of Adrien Fourmaux’s.
M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta Rally2 performed well on the last gravel event in México, but Portugal is a very different rally and it remains to be seen if it will have the legs to keep up with the fleet of Škodas.
Fourmaux will be giving it his all to do so though, and is definitely a good shout for a podium come Sunday.
His own personal form in Portugal is decent. He’s only started the rally twice, but scooped sixth in 2021 before a much-needed ninth the following year, virtue of a steady drive in the wake of his tricky start to the season.
#26 Yohan Rossel/Arnaud Dunand (Citroën C3 Rally2)
Championship position: 1st
Last 3 WRC2 results: 1st-1st-2nd
Best Portugal result: 1st WRC2 (2022)
This weekend is a huge one for the current championship leader, Yohan Rossel.
On the asphalt of Croatia and Monte Carlo, Rossel has cleaned up – particularly impressing on the latter in the upgraded Citroën C3 Rally2. But on the loose, Portugal will provide an indication of both the Citroën’s gravel pace relative to the Škoda, and where Rossel stacks up against so many accomplished drivers.
The Frenchman won Portugal in the WRC2 class last term, but that was largely because Suninen crashed on the powerstage.
Pull off a repeat result this year though, and regardless of how it was claimed Rossel will have really marked himself out as a proper championship contender.
#68 Kris Meeke/James Fulton (Hyundai i20 N Rally2)
Championship position: N/A
Last 3 WRC2 results: N/A
Best Portugal result: 1st (2016)
If Mikkelsen’s presence on the entry is big-ticket news, then this is blockbuster stuff. Kris Meeke is back in the WRC.
It’s under unfortunate circumstances following the passing of Craig Breen, but Meeke – and Breen’s co-driver James Fulton – will be giving it everything to win in honor of their late friend.
Meeke’s here predominantly to score Portuguese championship points, with Friday’s eight stages all counting towards that championship.
But for the rest of the weekend, Meeke will be free to vie for WRC2 honors too.
And what’s to say he can’t win on his category debut? Meeke may not be that sharp in terms of competition, but he’s done plenty of testing of Škoda’s Fabia RS Rally2 and won comfortably on his debut recently in a Hyundai.
He’s the only one in the WRC2 field to have won Rally of Portugal outright too, tasting success in 2016 with Citroën.
All eyes will be fixed on Meeke to see how he fares.
The driver’s view
We’re all excited by what promises to be a mega battle for supremacy – and so are the drivers themselves. They all want to win every rally they enter, but there’s extra kudos attached to a Portugal WRC2 win in 2023 considering the quality of the field.
“I will try my best,” Solberg promised DirtFish.
“You need a bit of luck as well with punctures as we know.”
However the Swede doesn’t feel victory will be any harder-fought in Portugal than on any of the other rounds so far this season.
“I think the competition was no worse in Sweden or México,” he said.
“There was just less cars, but I think the speed has been good all year, consistent, and yeah of course [Andreas] Mikkelsen will be very quick but he’s only one more guy.
“So I don’t really see him as any more of a threat than anybody else. Everyone is super quick so it’ll be flat to the square right.”
Fourmaux added: “It will be interesting to follow, I would say.
“Strategy [will be important especially with the championship because some drivers have already done some good results so they want maybe just to take some points etc and not take all the risks because the level will be so high, the pace will be really high.
“But yeah, for sure we need to score points, so I think everybody wants to do a good result because for sure if you win here you win against everybody because everybody is here, I think only Emil is not there. But yeah, most of the drivers are there.
“If we can get a podium I would be happy. This is what we were looking for from the beginning of the season so… yeah this would be a good result. But as I said to another media, it depends where. If we finish on the top three and we are five minutes behind, it’s not the same than if you are top five but 30s behind. Know what I mean?”
The experts’ view
During this week’s SPIN, The Rally Pod, George Donaldson and Luke Barry both gave their view on what to expect this week in WRC2.
Donaldson is struggling to see past a Solberg win.
“It’s going to be a fantastic fight out there, it’s worthy of a separate event on its own, let’s be honest, it’s just absolutely tremendous,” said Donaldson.
“If ever FIA got anything right it’s what the second category has morphed into. You can win in any car more or less, and about six or seven drivers could win it.
“Oliver Solberg has been incredibly strong this year; I did not expect him to come out this strong. I expected there maybe to be a recovery period after a tough year both emotionally and technically last year.
“For him to come out this year and just be so strong shows a remarkable depth of character in Oliver. He has shown a skill-level increase to my mind, he’s learned a lot and you can see it in every event he’s done this year.
“I’m going to put my money on Oliver this weekend.”
Barry wasn’t quite as brave, instead giving “three answers” to the question.
“With my heart I say Kris Meeke,” he said.
“With my head I say it’s going to be a Solberg vs Mikkelsen fight for the win but lots of drivers in there.
“But I’ve got a dark horse shout which is Teemu Suninen, because I think he’s a lot better, and a lot more capable – and the car is a lot more capable – than what people perhaps give him credit for.
“But head says Solberg or Mikkelsen.”