What we learned from Rally Portugal 2024

The title race is becoming clearer, Tänak is finally adapting and Katsuta is still progressing

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The European gravel season got underway in spectacular fashion at Rally Portugal. The eventual winner may not have surprised too many people, but pre-rally predictions of part-timer drivers running riot were wide of the mark. There was heat, there was dust and, most important of all, there was non-stop action.

But what did it teach us about the ever-evolving World Rally Championship season?

Neuville is now the title favorite

Going into Rally Portugal, championship leader Thierry Neuville could have been forgiven for thinking he would be left in the dust of part-timers, Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä. While he would be stuck sweeping the loose gravel from Friday’s stages, his rivals would be free to put the hammer down and take advantage of his hard work.

As it turned out, fortune favored Neuville. There had been considerable rain in the region in the run up to the rally, which lessened the impact of the Belgian running first on the road. Where he could have found himself a minute or more behind by the end of the Friday, the deficit was just 18.1 seconds after the first nine stages.

This was compounded by no one in Hyundai or Toyota overalls being happy with their machinery on those opening tests, meaning that no driver was able to carve out a clear advantage. Neuville was no different, but he showed his trademark tenacity and, by Saturday’s first service, was up to third place.

With Dani Sordo backing him up in fourth, the podium was his for the taking. He further pressed home his advantage by taking six Super Sunday points and the maximum powerstage bonus.

Neuville drove this rally like a champion in waiting and left Portugal with his lead extended to 26 points – almost a one-rally advantage. His cause was further aided by Elfyn Evans having a nightmarish weekend and scoring only six points.

If the Hyundai driver can carry this performance (and some of that good luck) to Sardinia, he could be well on his way to finally getting his hands on the trophy he has been chasing for over a decade.

Katsuta has rally-winning pace and resilience

It was another difficult weekend for Takamoto Katsuta. Crashing out of the second stage on Saturday morning was not part of the game plan. And, while he deserves credit for holding up his hands and admitting that it was his error, Katsuta urgently needs to find more consistency if he wants to become a rally winner.

But there is cause for optimism. Katsuta’s pace has been going in the right direction in 2024 and, crucially, he is also beginning to show the resilience required to convert that pace into results.


Katsuta led for three stages on Friday morning and remained in touch with the lead battle afterwards – but Saturday was, once again, his downfall

In Sweden earlier in the year, he had been battling Esapekka Lappi for victory before running wide into a snowbank. There was a time when such an off would have been followed by over-cautiousness and a severe lack of speed. Not so in 2024. Katsuta came to Portugal off the back of a Super Sunday win at Croatia Rally and second place on Safari Rally Kenya.

He was leading in Portugal after the first loop on Friday and was still less than five seconds off that lead by the end of the day. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to keep himself in the fight against Rovanperä and Ogier but Katsuta is showing that he has serious speed.

If he can keep his head as he did after the disappointment of Sweden, that first win might not be too far away.

Tänak is learning to live with the Hyundai

It has not been an easy start to the season for Ott Tänak. The 2019 champion does not seem at all comfortable in the i20 and spent much of Friday complaining that the car was not to his liking, even going as far as to say that the car doesn’t handle like a rally car should.

Tänak has been here before. He struggled to adapt to the i20 during his first stint with the Korean manufacturer back in 2022. After his move to M-Sport, there was further discomfort, this time with the Puma. The 2024 Hyundai has evolved since its launch two years ago but the team has not been shy in admitting that there are still problems.

What was different this weekend was that Tänak appears to have changed his approach. Given the uncertainty around the regulations for 2025 and beyond, it is unclear just how long he’ll have to wait for Hyundai to make the changes needed to bring the car to where he wants it.


Portugal was Tänak back at his best – not feeling completely at ease but delivering results regardless

It seems Tänak has decided that he doesn’t have time to wait. When asked if he was driving around the issues after the Saturday morning loop, Tänak told DirtFish: “It doesn’t matter at the moment, it’s about the competition and we just need to maximize on.”

And maximize he did. He scored the second-highest number of points in Croatia, and outscored everyone in Portugal. The gap to Neuville is still significant at 31 points but Tänak is finally making steps to drag his i20 into the title fight, whether he is comfortable with it or not.

Škoda is finally under pressure in WRC2

WRC2 had it all in Portugal. Rolls, rocks, penalties, getting stuck, you name it. There’s not much point reading into the results – instead, it’s the stage times before it all went awry that has the bigger clues.

Jan Solans scoring both his own maiden WRC2 win and for the Toyota GR Yaris Rally2, at the expense of Josh McErlean’s Toksport-run Škoda Fabia Rally2, was highly entertaining but is less likely to redefine the title battle.

How Yohan Rossel and Sami Pajari performed relative to Oliver Solberg and Gus Greensmith once you discount the incidents that ruined their respective rallies is the more interesting aspect for the title fight to come.

Yohan Rossel

Yohan Rossel was finally able to challenge the often-dominant Škodas for first place on gravel until multiple mistakes, driving or otherwise, undid all his hard work

On the asphalt of Monte Carlo and Croatia, it was no surprise to see the Citroën drivers conquer the top step. A Rally2 car flying the French tricolor being adept on asphalt out of the box is essentially a given. But its gravel pace had been lacking. Škoda had it fundamentally defeated on the loose stuff.

Citroën has been working hard on gravel-spec upgrades and Portugal was the first validation that those changes have worked. Rossel, a driver who in the past has sometimes been dismissed as an asphalt specialist, was on the leading pace. After Friday’s stages he was averaging a pace deficit of only 0.07s/km to Solberg, which the 2021 WRC3 champion put down to Solberg’s ability on gravel rather than the car underneath him.

Pajari meanwhile demonstrated the GR Yaris Rally2 is a match for the Fabia RS on gravel with his six stage wins – more than any other driver in Portugal.

Between Solberg, Greensmith, Pierre-Louis Loubet (who won two stages before crashing) and McErlean, Škoda has a lineup of heavy hitters in Toksport-run cars. But Rossel and Pajari’s times suggest this year’s title will be determined by who drives best, not what they’re driving.