Introduced in 2011 to showcase the sport’s brightest stars by equipping them with identical Ford Fiesta R2s, prepared by M-Sport, and run on control Pirelli tyres, the category is the first step for drivers intent on one day winning the World Rally Championship powered by Nokia.
Held over six rounds of the 2012 WRC season, drivers will also receive extensive training during the course of the year to ensure they are ready to climb to the sport’s highest echelon when the opportunity arises.
This year’s intake features 10 drivers representing seven different nations. They are: Fredrik Ahlin (Sweden), Christopher Duplessis (United States), Elfyn Evans (Great Britain), Alastair Fisher (Great Britain), John MacCrone (Great Britain), Brendan Reeves (Australia), Joao Silva (Portugal), Jose Suarez (Spain), Pontus Tidemand (Sweden) and Timo van der Marel (Netherlands).
Of the 10, only Ahlin, Duplessis, Fisher, Reeves, Suarez and van der Marel have previous WRC Academy experience. Of this six, all but Duplessis - who contested the final round in 2011 - were in action when the series began in Portugal 12 months ago.
Fisher, a 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, is one of the favourites to lift this year’s title. He led in Portugal last season and notched up his first victory on the penultimate event in France, eventually finishing third in the final standings.
Fisher has vowed to make the most of the lessons learned in 2011 and begin his campaign with a successful showing in Portugal: “I’ve improved vastly as a rally driver since the beginning of last year thanks to the advice and training I’ve received. I’ve worked very hard on my personal preparation over the winter break.”
Van der Marel is another driver with high hopes on the Algarve-based season-opener. The Dutch motorsport federation supports van der Marel, who, like his nine WRC Academy rivals is highly rated.
“I had quite a busy time getting read for the 2012 season: I needed to find sponsors, get in shape and I still have a job,” said the 22-year-old. “I will only be able to drive the Fiesta for the first time this year on Wednesday. Portugal is not going to be easy but I’m determined to get a good result.”
WRC Academy crews will cover 13 of the scheduled 22 stages in Portugal with the first car due to finish the event at 14:40hrs local time on Saturday 31 March.