It’s not often the supporting cast threatens to upstage the main act, but might that be the case as the World Rally Championship heads for its first gravel rally of the season: Rally Portugal?
That’s not to demean the quality at the front of the championship right now – we all know how competitive it is – but more to emphasize just how dazzling the WRC2 pack is this week.
A total of 11 Rally2 cars will wade into battle, and just about all of the drivers piloting them can put forward a justifiable case as to why they will walk away with the winner’s trophy.
There are two WRC event winners, five outright stage winners and seven with World Rally Car starts under their belt. And one of the quickest drivers in the field, Nikolay Gryazin, doesn’t fit into any of those categories!
Andreas Mikkelsen will unfortunately be absent due to contracting coronavirus, otherwise the fight would have been even more immense.
So who will prosper in Portugal? Our writers have their say.
Lappi looks rejuvenated
There’s no denying that Lappi has been rejuvenated since stepping down to WRC2 earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. He’s back at the sharp end and winning.
Following his victory in the Arctic Circle, his first outing in the second-tier WRC since winning the title in 2016, he declared he was the happiest he had been in years. And a happy Lappi is a fast Lappi.
His raw pace has never been in doubt but now he and co-driver Janne Ferm are able to show it.
While Mikkelsen leads the standings, Lappi has something of an advantage having contested just one of the seven points-scoring events this season so far, and if the Finn is able to maintain the sort of form he showed in Finland, then he can surely challenge his Nordic rival for the title – if he can put together a full program.
Portugal will be the key, however. A good result this weekend and we can place Lappi’s name into the increasingly large bowl of drivers capable of taking the championship this year.
– Stephen Brunsdon
Solberg’s confidence is sky high
Confidence will be sky high for Oliver Solberg as he makes his first WRC2 start of the season and that has to make him the favorite for victory in Portugal.
His WRC result on Arctic Rally Finland is clear evidence that he is capable of mixing it with rallying’s finest and it will no doubt spur him on to prove that he is the best of the WRC2 field and worthy of a full-time seat in the premier class.
And what better way to start his campaign than on his favored gravel surface?
Solberg should be on the pace straight out of the box and if he doesn’t win, I fully expect him to be claiming one of the podium positions barring any mechanical issues.
The Hyundai driver has already nailed his colors to the mast, stating that the WRC2 title is the primary aim for 2021. The title still could well be his, especially with the new i20N Rally2 due to be at his disposal later in the season, but he can’t rest on his laurels and anything less than a podium result in Portugal should be considered a disappointment.
– Rob Hansford
It’ll be Østberg… or Suninen
My colleagues will all, no doubt, have told you about Esapekka Lappi’s Arctic awesomeness or Oliver Solberg’s laudable Lapland World Rally Car debut. All very relevant. All very sensible.
But only one man in the WRC2 field has tasted actual victory on this rally. That’s Mads Østberg.
Nine years ago, the likeable Norwegian rose to the podium’s top step when post-event scrutineering discovered Mikko Hirvonen’s DS3 WRC had something of a dodgy clutch.
But what does Østberg’s 2012 Rally Portugal win actually mean in today’s currency? Very little. The stages down south run out of a Faro base are similar but not the same as this week.
So why do I think Østberg will be the one to watch in one of the classiest WRC2 races ever? Because he’s a man very much in sync with his Citroën C3 Rally2. He’s got good seat time, had plenty of testing and development running and he’s an experienced, canny racer.
I’ve been enormously impressed with the Finn’s attitude and approach in stepping down to the Fiesta Rally2David Evans
Trust me, Mads is the man this week.
Just in case he’s not, Teemu Suninen’s the man this week. The directive here is clear: pick one winner. But I’ve never been one for egg-filling a single basket. So I’ll go with the M-Sport Ford star as well.
I have to be honest, I’ve been enormously impressed with Suninen’s attitude and approach in stepping down from the World Rally Car to the Fiesta Rally2.
Suninen likes Portugal and goes well there – fourth and third places on his last two outings with scratch times on both.
Trust me, watch Teemu go. (Obviously, while keeping an eye on Mads…)
– David Evans
Gryazin has massive potential
He’s eighth in the standings with a third place and a retirement from the two events he has entered this season so far, but don’t be fooled by this somewhat uninspiring statistical start to his title campaign. Gryazin has been blindingly fast and would likely have finished runner-up to Østberg in Croatia had it not been for a power-steering failure on Saturday.
In reality, Gryazin has been right there, as he always has, but bad luck has historically been on his side.
But put it all together and I’m sure Gryazin can find a breakthrough series of results – starting in Portugal – to be a real thorn in the sides of WRC2’s leading lights.
That might not be a victory, but he’s due another decent result to transform his promising season to date into a great one.
What about the rest?
Of the drivers not already mentioned, Ole Christian Veiby looks the best shout for an upset, and is more than capable of doing just that if his form on Rali Terras d’Aboboreira two weeks ago is anything to go by.
Don’t discount Eric Camilli either. The former M-Sport driver has far more recent experience on asphalt than on gravel but with the right approach, he could sneak up the leaderboard while others hit trouble.
The same tactic has always worked handsomely for Marco Bulacia too and Tom Kristensson, who adapted impressively to Rally2 machinery in Croatia before an unfortunate accident, is equally capable of such a feat.
It’s almost a shame that Adrien Fourmaux isn’t in the mix as well. As much as we are all loving watching him in the World Rally Car, judging just where his pace is in this company would have been a fascinating barometer.