Returning Sebs the focus in Portugal

Kalle Rovanpera has been in sublime form so far this year, but the focus at this weekend’s Rally of Portugal will be on two other drivers.

That may seem a little harsh to the championship leader, but it just so happens that those two drivers happened to be named Sebastien.

Messers Loeb and Ogier return for their second ‘battle’ of 2022 after they finished first and second in Monte Carlo in January.

With 17 WRC titles and seven Rally of Portugal wins between them, it’s not hard to see that the pair are considered rallying royalty.

This will be the first event on gravel for the new-for-2022 Rally1 hybrid cars, and with warm and dry weather forecast for the first two days, road position will play a key role.

As first on the road, Rovanpera will be at a distinct disadvantage, and fourth on the road Loeb won’t be that much better off.

That will give Ogier, seeded eighth, a big advantage on the opening day’s eight stages – or, it should.

“Portugal is a special place for me: I have a good connection with the country and the fans and have had some good success there over the years,” Toyota’s Ogier said this week.

“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 straight away after only one test day on gravel last week. But at the same time, these cars are new for everyone on gravel, so let’s see what we can do.”

Can Sebastien Loeb repeat his Monte Carlo win in Portugal?

Similarly, Loeb only had one day of testing on gravel in the Ford Puma, but was quick to get into the groove in the new car.

“I was quite happy with the feeling I had as we worked on the suspension and the differential set-ups,” he remarked.

“Only one day of testing isn’t a lot when it’s the first time you are driving a car on gravel, but at the end I was happy with the feeling I had.

“My goal will be to find a rhythm as quickly as possible, hopefully I will be in a good rhythm to fight at the front, if I could be not far from the podium that would be a good performance.”

The Frenchman also acknowledged that road sweeping will be a big factor on day one.

“The challenges of Rally de Portugal for me will be that I am fourth on the road, road cleaning is always a challenge in this kind of rally if it is dry.

“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.”

Rovanpera also sees running order as the biggest issue, and doesn’t seem confident of victory.

He has never led the pack on a gravel round of the WRC and is in for a big learning curve of road sweeping this weekend.

“For us, the road-cleaning will probably be the biggest challenge, especially as it’s something quite new for us. Friday could be much more important than on other rallies and we will try to be at a good pace straightaway to remain in contention for the rest of the weekend,” the Finn said.

“The key thing in these next rallies will be to just try to keep calm and focus on doing a good job, without taking too much pressure or making mistakes, and keep taking good points where we can.”

It’s an important event for many of their rivals too, with Elfyn Evans, in particular, desperate to get a good bunch of points to get his stalled season back on track.

Crashes and mechanical issues have hampered Evans in 2022, but with a good road position, it’s his best chance yet of a win.

Both Gus Greensmith and Takamoto Katsuta have already said they’ll be pushing hard, while M-Sport’s Craig Breen is likely to shelve his ‘safety first’ approach and push for the win.

And, of course, we can’t forget Hyundai’s super team with Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak and Dani Sordo – all drivers who have realistic chances of victory.

It all bodes well for a super exciting event, with the culmination on the final day over the stuff Fafe stages.

Forest Rally begins in WA

Fifteen thousand kilometres away in Nannup, the second round of the Australian Rally Championship will be taking place, with Harry Bates the hot favourite.

The Toyota driver hasn’t been beaten in an event or a heat since 2018, and with his Toyota GR Yaris AP4 clearly the class of the field, there’s no reason that’s likely to change.

Biggest challenges will come from his brother, Lewis, in an identical Yaris, and former champion, Eli Evans, in his re-born Mini Cooper AP4.

Evans was third at the first round in Canberra until an engine fire ended his rally, and on an event he knows well, he could be a real darkhorse.

Richie Dalton (Yaris), Arron Windus (Fiesta G4) and Tom Clarke (Fiesta R5) will also be pushing hard for podium finishes, while third generation Scotsman, Max McRae, will be under the microscope in an ex-Dean Herridge Subaru Impreza WRX.

The Forest Rally begins on Friday evening with a super special stage run four times, before a further 13 stages on Saturday and Sunday, all held on WA’s famous ball bearing gravel roads.

Peter has been the editor of RallySport Magazine since its inception in 1989, in both printed and online form. He is a long-time competitor, event organiser and official, as well as working in the media.

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