The highs and lows of Rally Portugal

In the latest for DirtFish's Portugal week, David Evans plots some of the long and bittersweet history of the famous rally


Rallies with heritage, heart and history have names. Last time it was El Cóndor and Ascochinga. Now we’ve moved on to Arganil, Sintra and Fafe. We’ve moved from Argentina to Portugal.

Europe’s westernmost nation is, as you’d expect, bordered south and west by the Atlantic and enjoys a history rich in maritime exploration.

Through the Age of Discovery, Portugal built and expanded trading routes around the world to become one of the foremost economic and political powers.

Portugal’s second city, Porto, has always been at the heart of that advancement. And motorsport has – for the last seven decades – been close to Porto’s heart.

Portugal’s first Formula 1 race ran around the streets, across the cobblestones and tram tracks of the city’s district of Boavista. Just a stone’s throw (admittedly an energetic and beefy, long throw) from where Sir Stirling Moss and his Vanwall claimed victory in that 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix, sits the current, Matosinhos, home of Vodafone Rally de Portugal.

The Rally of Portugal is always one of the best supported events in the championship. The undulating gravel roads inland from the coast allied to some of the most challenging asphalt tests around made this event a firm favorite with the crews.

And with the fans. Regularly rewarded in its early days as being the best of the best, the event’s inability to control vast crowds was exposed by a horrifying accident when Joaquim Santos’s Ford RS200 slid off the road and into a crowd of people.

We will investigate the reasons for and ramifications felt from that crash later in this, DirtFish’s Portugal week.

For now, it’s back to the beginning. All the way back to 1963, when Portugal’s national airline TAP decided it would expand the activities of its sporting and cultural club to include a car rally. Twenty-eight drivers – all employees of TAP – took part in a civilized dash through a handful of controls from Lisbon Airport to Alverca.

Buoyed by the success, the event returned and this time came with input from the Sporting Club of Portugal. The 1964 event was the first to be touched by a man who became synonymous with Rally of Portugal and a central figure in the development of the World Rally Championship, César Torres.

By 1966, the TAP Rally was open to everybody and featured a wider 300-mile route. Now heavily involved, Torres was keen to push the event further and wider.

He got backing for the first International TAP Rally in 1968, when crews started from several major European cities where the airline flew from. Having converged on San Sebastián on Spain’s northern coast, a four-day rally began, ending in Estoril just outside the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

With the offer of 100 liters of fuel and some free hotel rooms, foreign crews poured into Portugal to take on what was fast becoming one of the most talked-about rallies of its time. Britons Tony Fall (Lancia Fulvia) and Paddy Hopkirk (Mini Cooper S) did battle and finished one-two respectively in 1968.

Twelve months on and the British contingent didn’t cover itself in quite the same glory. Colin Malkin overslept and missed the first control. His Lancia team-mate Fall looked odds-on for back-to-back wins when he spotted his wife on the way to the finish.

His co-driver Henry Liddon made some room and the three of them made their way to the final control. Torres pointed out that regulations were quite clear: two people per car from start to finish. They were disqualified.

Some felt the exclusion might have saved face, after Fall’s car was repaired with quite startling – some might say miraculous – speed following a big accident in Cabreira earlier in the event…

Torres achieved the next step of his ambition, when Portugal secured a place in the 1970 European Championship. Bigger things were just around the corner, with the maiden World Rally Championship calendar finding a space for Portugal in 1973.

Up until that point, the event had been run in the autumn, so a March date for the world championship made for a hasty turnaround between the 1972 and ’73 events. Jean-Luc Thérier led something of an Alpine rout, leading his fellow A110 driver Jean-Pierre Nicolas home.

The 1974 season brought the first dark cloud over the event. Firstly, the oil crisis had been in place since October 1973 and when the rally came around, the price of fuel had rocketed by 400 per cent.

Typically forward thinking, Torres did a deal with Venezuela and bagged enough petrol to keep the rally running. The Rallye Internacional TAP opened the 1974 season after Monte-Carlo and Sweden were lost to the crisis.

Later that year, Portugal’s Estado Novo nationalist regime fell to a non-violent uprising, known as the Carnation Revolution. The upshot of that was the nationalization of the TAP airline and the decision that sponsoring a rally wasn’t in the interest of the company.

Once again, Torres wouldn’t be deterred. He considered Portugal’s other prime assets, got the secretary of state for tourism and foreign trade on the telephone and did a deal. Thereafter and until 1993, the event would be known as the Port Wine Rally.

2015 Portugal Rallyecopyright: Hyundai Motorsport

Political elections forced the event to move into a summer date in 1975 and while some were concerned about the ramifications of political change in Portugal, rally fans enjoyed Markku Alén’s maiden win on their roads.

Stepping from a Fiat 124 Abarth close to three minutes ahead of his team-mate and countryman Hannu Mikkola, the lankier of the two Finns allowed himself the smallest smile of contentment.

“When I won that event,” Alén tells DirtFish, “it felt like I had shown to myself that I had the speed. Beating Hannu was a big thing.”

And the battle between those two would define this rally through the coming years.

Alén’s 1978 success is the subject of a separate DirtFish story on Wednesday. His 1981 win at the wheel of a Fiat 131 Abarth rebuilt at the side of the road after he ripped the right-front corner off on the fourth stage was just as merit-worthy.

As was his effort in 1984, when his Lancia 037 finished second to Mikkola’s Audi Quattro – just 27 seconds separated the cars after more than seven hours of competition.

Santos’s crash casts a further cloud over the event’s history in 1986, but the event remained in rallying’s top flight, partly no doubt due to Torres’s exceptional political ability – after guiding the Portuguese ASN, he would go on to become vice-president of the FISA in 1988 and FIA president of sport in 1993.

Torres’s premature death in 1997 was a dark day for motorsport around the world, but especially in Portugal. And that loss was never more keenly felt than in 2001, when Portugal lost its place in the World Rally Championship.

That 2001 event was one of the wettest on record. The Sunday before the event, Portugal suffered the loss of 59 people when the Hintze Ribeiro Bridge collapsed into the Douro River inland from Porto.

Then clerk of the course Antonio Mocho was keen to postpone the rally, but he was persuaded to continue by series stakeholders. Scrambling to find a new and workable service park after the Ponte de Lima venue was lost to rising floodwater was just the beginning of the problems which beset Mocho’s team.

When some of the crews ground to halt, unable to move in the mud, and were joined by FIA safety delegate Jacek Bartos’s jeep, the voices of discontent were getting louder and louder.

Without Torres’s voice and influence, Portugal was cast into the wilderness for the next six years.

Still, to this day, Carlos Sainz doesn’t buy the rain theory.

The two-time world champion tells DirtFish: “I always said that was an excuse to kick the rally out. You cannot do this for the rain. That year was very bad rain, but this is not their fault and in my opinion it was for political reasons more than anything else.”

Portugal has always had a special place in Sainz’s heart. It’s where he made his debut in the world championship in 1987 and, in typical Sainz fashion, he made an immediate impact.

Driving a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth, ‘El Matador’ was fastest on his first ever WRC stage and led immediately on his debut at rallying’s highest level. Five stages later, he was quickest again, but later retired with engine problems.

“At that time,” Sainz adds, “Spain was not part of the world championship and Portugal was like my home event with lots of fans coming across the border. It’s a special one for me.”

Special or not, Portugal was gone. The rain got the blame, but there were further question marks over spectator safety.

Containing the crowds was part of the decision to move the event south to Faro when it finally returned in 2007. The Algarve is far from the sport’s northern heartland, but if it was a choice between no WRC round and one based in the wrong part of the country, the latter would be accepted.

Slowly, however, through a ceremonial start in Lisbon, a promotional rally sprint event in Fafe and a considerable amount of lobbying from the right people, the event finally went home in 2015.

Based out of Matosinhos’s expedition center ever since, Portugal’s northern roads have returned to charm another generation of crews and fans.