Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera heads to Rally Portugal this weekend (May 19-22) aiming for a third straight victory in the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship, but all eyes will be on Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier, who face off for a second time in a battle of the WRC greats.
Neither Seb is taking on a full WRC campaign in 2022, but the sport’s two most successful drivers go head to head in Portugal after putting on a masterclass on the asphalt and ice of January’s season-opening Monte Carlo Rally. Loeb became the oldest WRC event winner in history, aged 47, after snatching victory in an epic tussle with his fellow Frenchman.
Three rounds later, they return from competing in other disciplines (Ogier in the WEC and Loeb in rally raids and Extreme E) to add extra spice to the opening gravel fixture of both the season and the WRC’s new hybrid era.
M-Sport Ford driver Loeb has the more difficult task. The nine-time WRC champion (pictured above in today’s shakedown) is an early starter in Friday’s opening leg, and with conditions set to remain dry, grip will be low for those at the front on roads coated in slippery sand.
“I am fourth on the road and road cleaning is always a challenge in this kind of rally if it’s dry,” said the Puma Rally1 driver, a two-time Rally Portugal winner. “I don’t really know what to expect there, so we need to do a good first day, and for the rest we will see where we are. Only one day of testing isn’t a lot when it’s the first time you are driving a [Rally1 hybrid] car on gravel, but at the end I was happy with the feeling I had.”
Eight-time and reigning world champion Ogier is chasing a record sixth victory in the country where he scored his first WRC win 12 years ago. The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver is helped by a start position four places behind Loeb, meaning a cleaner road surface for the opening stages in his GR Yaris Rally1.
“Portugal is a special place for me,” said Ogier. “It will be something different for me to not be starting near the front, and hopefully that can be a bit of an advantage if it doesn’t rain.
“The biggest challenge will be getting back in the rhythm straightaway after only one test day on gravel. But at the same time, these cars are new for everyone on gravel.”
Ogier is joined in a four-car Toyota fleet by 2021 Portugal winner Elfyn Evans, who starts one place behind Ogier, championship leader Rovanpera, and development driver Takamoto Katsuta.
Evans, whose star-crossed start to the 2022 season has left him ninth in points, was fastest on Thursday’s pre-event Shakedown stage, and starting ninth on the road for Friday’s first leg could make him the early pacesetter.
“Yeah, of course that’s always a help, so we need to try and make the most of that,” said the Welshman. “Obviously, it was quite slippery on the first [Shakedown] run, but we’ll see what it’s like in the rally.”
Rovanpera has won two of the season’s opening three rounds, including a thrilling, last-gasp success last time out on the Croatia Rally. The 21-year-old Finn tops the WRC standings by 29 points but is disadvantaged by opening the roads on dirt for the first time.
Loeb is part of a five-car M-Sport Ford fleet, the biggest entry from a team in the hybrid era. He is joined by Craig Breen, who’s third in the WRC points and was second quickest in the Shakedown stage, Adrien Fourmaux, Gus Greensmith and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
Dani Sordo replaces Oliver Solberg at Hyundai Motorsport for his 2022 debut in a hybrid i20 N Rally1. The Spaniard joins full-season Hyundai factory drivers Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville, both podium finishers in Croatia.
For Neuville, whose second position in the WRC points means he starts second on the road on Friday, the first gravel rally with a hybrid Rally1 car is something of a journey into the unknown.
“First thing is getting a feeling of the car on gravel now after some testing,” said the Belgian. “It’s going to be a challenging weekend for us. There’s quite a lot of cleaning on the first day but we’re going to try and be on it all the time and see what’s possible.”
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen is the driver to beat after his victories on the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Sweden for the Toksport WRT Skoda team.
But with Hyundai fielding a strong line-up of Solberg and Teemu Suninen, plus Croatia winner Yohan Rossel, Eric Camilli and Stephane Lefebvre all in the frame in their Citroen C3s, the Norwegian won’t have it easy.
Watch out, too, for all-American duo Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani in their Sainteloc Junior Team Citroen C3. They’re sitting just outside the top 10 in WRC2 points and will be looking for a good result on their first gravel round of the year.
The rally is based in the coastal city of Matosinhos. After Thursday night’s start in Coimbra, competitors face 21 special stages covering 210.23 competitive miles in north and central Portugal. Getting things started, Friday’s eight special stages and 75.6 competitive miles without a service halt could prove particularly decisive. The rally finishes on Sunday afternoon after a finale over the iconic roads of Fafe, including its iconic jumps.
Rally Portugal also marks the centerpiece of the WRC’s 50th season celebrations. The biggest ever gathering of champion drivers and co-drivers will attend and almost 30 classic cars will parade through several stages during the event.
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