Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera is heading to Rally Portugal this weekend (19-22 May) and is targeting a third straight win in the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship, but all eyes will be on Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier, who are competing face the WRC greats in a match for the second time.
Neither of Seb is taking part in a full WRC season in 2022, but the sport’s two most successful drivers go head-to-head in Portugal after hosting a master class on asphalt and ice at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally in January. Loeb became the oldest WRC event winner in history at the age of 47 after claiming victory in an epic battle with fellow Frenchman.
Three rounds later, they return from other disciplines (Ogier in the WEC and Loeb in Rally Raids and Extreme E) to add extra spice to the opening gravel game of the season and the WRC’s new hybrid era.
M-Sport Ford driver Loeb has the tougher task. The nine-time WRC champion (Pictured above in today’s shakedown) is an early starter in Friday’s opening stage and as conditions will remain dry grip for those in front will be low on the slippery sand covered roads.
“I’m fourth on the road and cleaning the roads is always a challenge in this type of rally when it’s dry,” said the Puma Rally1 driver, two-time Rally Portugal winner. “I don’t really know what to expect there, so we have to put in a good first day and for the rest we’ll see where we are. Just one day of testing isn’t much if you’re driving for the first time [Rally1 hybrid] Car on gravel but in the end I was happy with the feeling.”
Eight-time and reigning World Champion Ogier is chasing a record sixth win in the country where he celebrated his first WRC win 12 years ago. The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver is helped by a starting position four behind Loeb, which means a cleaner road surface for the first few stages in his GR Yaris Rally1.
“Portugal is a special place for me,” said Ogier. “It’s different for me not to start at the front and hopefully that can be a small advantage if it’s not raining.
“The biggest challenge will be to get back into the rhythm immediately after just one day of testing on gravel. But at the same time these cars are new for everyone on gravel.”
Ogier will be joined in a four-car Toyota fleet by 2021 Portuguese winner Elfyn Evans, who will start one place behind Ogier, championship leader Rovanpera and development driver Takamoto Katsuta.
Evans, whose star-crossed start to the 2022 season has given him ninth place in points, was fastest on the shakedown stage leading up to Thursday’s event and starting ninth on the road for Friday’s stage one could put him to the make early pacemaker.
“Yes, of course that’s always a help so we have to try and make the best of it,” said the Welshman. “Of course it was quite slippery at the beginning [Shakedown] run, but we’ll see how it is in the rally.”
Rovanpera has won two of the first three rounds of the season, including an exciting last-minute win at Rally Croatia. The 21-year-old Finn leads the WRC standings with 29 points but is at a disadvantage as it opens up the roads on unpaved tracks for the first time.
Loeb is part of a five-car M-Sport Ford fleet, the biggest addition to a team in the hybrid era. He is joined by Craig Breen, third in WRC points and second fastest in the shakedown stage, Adrien Fourmaux, Gus Greensmith and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
Dani Sordo replaces Oliver Solberg at Hyundai Motorsport on his 2022 debut in a hybrid i20 N Rally1. The Spaniard joins Hyundai works drivers Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville, both of whom were on the podium in Croatia.
For Neuville, who is second on the road with second place in the WRC points classification on Friday, the first gravel rally with a Rally1 hybrid car is something of a journey into the unknown.
“The first thing we have to do is get a feel for the car on gravel after a few tests,” said the Belgian. “It will be a challenging weekend for us. There’s quite a bit of cleaning to do on the first day, but we’ll try to be there all the time and see what’s possible.”
In WRC2, the second division of international rallying, reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen is the driver to beat for Team Toksport WRT Skoda after his victories in the Monte Carlo Rally and the Rally Sweden.
But with Hyundai fielding a strong line-up of Solberg and Teemu Suninen, as well as Croatian winner Yohan Rossel, Eric Camilli and Stephane Lefebvre in their Citroen C3s, it won’t be easy for the Norwegian.
Also look out for the all-American duo of Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani in their Sainteloc Junior Team Citroen C3. They sit just outside the top 10 in WRC2 points and will be aiming for a good result on their first gravel round of the year.
The rally takes place in the coastal town of Matosinhos. After the start on Thursday evening in Coimbra, the participants face 21 special stages with 210.23 competitive miles in northern and central Portugal. As a prelude, Friday’s eight special stages and 75.6 non-stop race miles could prove particularly crucial. The rally concludes on Sunday afternoon after a finale across Fafe’s legendary streets, including its legendary jumps.
Rally Portugal is also the centerpiece of the WRC’s 50th season celebrations. The largest gathering of world champion drivers and co-drivers to date will take part and nearly 30 classic cars will parade through multiple stages during the event.
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