WRC drivers expect Portugal to deliver «most competitive» victory fight

This weekend marks the start of the traditional gravel rally season welcoming the strongest Rally1 field of the season to date, comprising five previous Portugal winners.

Toyota has elected to field both its part-time drivers in the same event for the first time, with reigning world champion Kalle Rovanpera, a two-time Portugal winner (2022, 2023), alongside Sebastien Ogier, who has triumphed on an event record-equalling five occasions (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017).

The team’s title hopeful Elfyn Evans stood on the top step of the podium in 2021, while Hyundai championship rivals Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak tasted victory in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

To add to the mix is Hyundai’s third driver Dani Sordo, who has seven Portugal podiums under his belt, ahead of his first start of the season.

Road position is often vital in Portugal due to the road-sweeping effect of the dusty gravel stages. Starting seventh and fifth on the road respectively, Rovanpera and Ogier have emerged among the early favourites.

Rovanpera is already expecting a closely fought battle for victory and is relishing the prospect of starting lower down the order.

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

«I have a feeling that this rally is going to be a really tight battle for the win, so let’s see but I’m sure it is going to be a tough one,» Rovanpera told Motorsport.com.

«It is nice to be in the mix and finally after a few years, we have a good starting road position so it will be crucial to use it well. It is always nice when you have a good battle. You need to come out of on top to feel good, but that is my job.»

For Ogier, this will be his first gravel rally since the Acropolis last September and the eight-time world champion believes there will be «no time to adapt».

«Of course, myself, Kalle and Takamoto [Katsuta] have very good starting positions and the plan is to make as many points as we can,» Ogier told Motorsport.com. «We have seen recently that points differences are difficult to make up so every time you can have the strongest line-up you can it is good to take it.

«I would not necessarily focus on Kalle right now but there is a high probability that he will be the man to beat starting from the back.

«From my side, I hope to be able to compete too even if I have had a bit of a longer break since my last gravel rally. I have to be as sharp as I can early on in the rally as we know the fight will be tight and there will be no room to just adapt to anything.»

The top two in the championship, Neuville and Evans will face the worst of the conditions and with points now awarded at the end of Saturday the pair face a challenge to maximise their points hauls. Neuville admitted that it is likely the duo will be involved in their own private battle.

«We have to have a consistent Friday and Saturday and we will end up where we end up,» said Neuville. «Then after we have to hope for a better road position for Sunday which will allow us to fight for the 12 extra points.

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

Evans also isn’t expecting to benefit from any team orders from Toyota who traditionally avoid such tactics.

«It is what it is. It has been quite clear for some time [on team orders], said Evans. «You have to drive for the points. I have to focus on trying to do a good job and that’s it.»

Meanwhile, sitting fourth in the championship and without a podium this season so far, Hyundai’s Tanak is primed to attack on a surface that has yielded 12 of his 19 WRC wins.

«I feel more comfortable here so I definitely will attack and try to maximise and take everything out that I can. It is the big target,» Tanak told Motorsport.com.

«I would say more or less, it will be one of the most competitive rallies this year for sure. It is also a rally about pure performance. Some sections it is getting really rough, and some are nice and smooth. It will really show how the car is. It will be really interesting to see where we are.»

The 22-stage rally begins on Thursday night.

Watch: Vodafone Rally de Portugal Shakedown highlights

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