Portugal has never been one of the more straightforward European rounds of the World Rally Championship. Whether it was the wet March weather blowing in off the Atlantic or the difficult-to-read roads inland from the Algarve, there’s always something to focus the mind and keep the crew occupied.
The move to May has generally secured sunshine for the westernmost European counter on the calendar and the move north from Faro to Matosinhos, which came in 2015, has returned what is a jewel in the WRC’s crown back to its people.
But the medium to high-speed nature of the stages, with plenty of corners on crests, still makes this one of the more challenging events.
“When we were down south competing, the roads were a little bit harder to read,” says English co-driver Seb Marshall. “But even since we moved up north, it’s still a rally where it can be quite tricky to find your rhythm.
“The stages are really challenging and don’t always flow – but it’s not quite as hard on the body as some of the other European gravel rallies like Sardinia, where you can get the more extreme heat.”
Portugal’s not generally a rough rally, but with some of the sandier stages – especially after a particularly dry winter – you can get some unexpected rocks being pulled out to liven up the second run of stages.
This is a rally full of tradition and of famous names, with Arganil among the most impressive (we’ll come to that later in the week).
Arganil was included for the first time in years last season and wreaked havoc with Hyundai’s plans as both rally leader Dani Sordo and nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb pulled over with low fuel pressure.
The Fafe stage was scheduled to make another starring role this week, with one of the season’s most famous jumps concluding the action on the Powerstage.
The only changes to this year’s route and the challenge to follow in the footsteps of last year’s winner Ott Tänak was the Mortágua test on Friday, which took the event across the border and into the central Portuguese district of Viseu, and Sunday’s Felgueiras stage – back on the itinerary after two decades.
As well as being one of the more complicated rounds of the championship, Portugal was always enjoyed as a second start to the season.
Marshall: “There was always that view that, if you hadn’t done Monte or Sweden because they were too expensive or specific and you hadn’t been to México, everybody came to Portugal.
“It really was like the start of the European season and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed, starting Portugal traditionally meant starting quite a busy period of rallies.”
Less so this season, Seb…
But the challenge will return. And, until it does, let’s have Mr Marshall talk us through that final Fafe leap.
“There’s a sixth-gear right-hander followed by a 120-meter straight into the jump,” says Marshall. “Unlike some of the other jumps, there’s nothing specific about the take-off – the car just has to be in the middle, so the actual call for the jump is something generally just a: ‘Big jump’.
“In reality, the drivers know this one very well. As you fly through the air, you can see the finish, but you still call the 80-meter straight and fourth-gear right that follow.
“Because the road drops away from the beneath you, the landing can be quite hard, so you sort of brace yourself a little bit for it. The atmosphere around there’s just fantastic – with so many fans. It’s a great way to end the event.”
And a final twist in the challenge that would have been this week’s Rally of Portugal.