It’s the backbone of the World Rally Championship calendar. But the world’s best rally drivers haven’t been on gravel for seven months, and their brand-new hybrid Rally1 cars… well, they’ve not been tried competitively on the loose at all.
Next week’s Rally Portugal therefore marks a very important point in the season. Not only does it properly kickstart an intense period of rallies but it begins the gravel season which is the surface seven of the next eight rallies – Portugal, Italy, Kenya, Estonia, Finland, Greece and New Zealand – will be staged on.
The teams have all clocked in some testing miles already. Hyundai was on the ground in Portugal a fortnight ago, while M-Sport and Toyota were both putting their machines through their paces last week.
But, just like on the Monte Carlo Rally back in January, nobody truly knows where they stand until the first stage of Rally Portugal next Friday.
“To be honest, I think the biggest variable going into this set of gravel rallies is probably not the drivers at this point but more the cars to be honest,” admitted Toyota technical director Tom Fowler.
“At least from our point of view last year was very difficult in terms of timeframe to do all the development work and we know what each other have done in terms of test events, and last year, earlier than we wanted to, we had to put gravel to the side and say Monte’s coming very quick now and we did most of our work in Tarmac.
“The job list of things to find out about on gravel was still quite long at that point.”
How long is it now?
“Quite long! But I don’t think it’s the longest one of all the teams, I think we all have things to find out. I think our job list is maybe the average one.”
It’s safe to assume that Fowler is hinting Hyundai’s i20 N Rally1 may be the weakest while M-Sport’s Ford Puma Rally1 could be the strongest car.
It’s certainly no secret that Hyundai’s pre-season testing was compromised at best while M-Sport was first out of the blocks with its hybrid challenger and clocked lots of useful miles with test driver Matthew Wilson, Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux and, to an extent, Gus Greensmith at the wheel.
“We did two proper days in Spain last year, and I’ve done a day or two in Greystoke as well, so I’m looking forward to it [Portugal],” Breen told DirtFish.
But he does have a handicap: “I haven’t been to Portugal since 2018. It’s one of those ones like Monte, so it will be the same Portugal, Sardinia. I haven’t done any of them since ’18.”
Team-mate Greensmith has done five days on gravel with the Puma Rally1 and feels that’s a “good amount of mileage” that’ll leave him with “no excuses”.
But he’s not the only pilot feeling quietly confident.
“For sure I will try to push as much as I can because I feel quite comfortable on the gravel with this car,” said Takamoto Katsuta.
The true question is of course when you get onto the really hot, dry bedrock stages, perhaps we haven’t done so much of that workElfyn Evans
“[I’ve] not [done] much testing, but still I feel quite confident. So let’s see compared to other teams, but I believe this car is working very well. So I’m really looking forward to Portugal.”
However speaking to DirtFish before his Portugal test last week, fellow GR Yaris Rally1 driver Elfyn Evans is less sure.
“[I’ve] not driven it all that much on gravel. Of course I’ve done a few tests [but] we have to wait and see,” he said.
“The true question is of course when you get onto the really hot, dry bedrock stages, perhaps we haven’t done so much of that work.”
As for Hyundai, it’s fair to say its drivers are feeling the least confident.
“I don’t think we are at the same level as the Toyota yet,” confessed Thierry Neuville.
“But I have to say, I felt comfortable driving it [in Croatia], so that’s a good point and after [that] we can start working on the small details to increase the performance.”
“[I have] no thoughts ahead of Portugal, and no idea,” was Ott Tänak’s somewhat blunt assessment.
“[Our Portugal test was the] first time on gravel and some others have already been testing already a year on gravel, so let’s see.”
Let’s see indeed. The pace and performance out on the stages next week could very well set the tone for the rest of the year ahead.