Vodafone Rally de Portugal, round four of the FIA World Rally Championship powered by Nokia, had it all: thunder and lightning, shock retirements, the emergence of new and exciting talent, late night exclusions and even the return to the podium of a legend. About the only thing missing was costumes - otherwise the Algarve event would have been the perfect four-act drama.
Act one: the swashbuckling French hero mishears ‘right’ instead of ‘left’ and promptly ends up in the trees, under cover of darkness. That was a show-stopper as it was: you’d have to go back to Greece in 2009 to find the last time that Sebastien Loeb crashed out of a rally and into retirement.
In fact, he’s even more consistent than his team-mate, rally winner (for a while at least) Mikko Hirvonen, who hasn’t destroyed a car since Finland 2010 - although to be fair to Mikko, he did a pretty good job of it at the time.
So the strength in depth that Citroen benefits from is simply awesome, which makes up for the fact that the DS3 WRC is not actually the fastest car out there. In Portugal, the MINI John Cooper Works WRC set more fastest times than the Citroen - which was not too difficult, as none of the top three set a fastest stage time at all: surely a record, albeit a slow one.
The MINI was just one of the surprises of the rally - along with the fact that not one, but two, Fords threw away the lead on Friday. There was no need for either driver to be pushing: particularly because Hirvonen (in third place at the time) was in front of them on the road and they could monitor his split times.
To be fair, conditions were extremely slippery and it’s not as if either driver had a huge accident: they just suffered the sort of small mishap that people often get away with. But the timing was unfortunate, to say the least. As the team’s technical chief Christian Loriaux put it: “we had an opportunity handed to us on a silver plate, we threw the plate in the bin, and then buried the bin.”
And then, many hours after the rally had finished, the event stewards exhumed the bin, fished out the silver plate, and handed it back to Ford.
But that doesn’t alter the reality of the situation. It’s now been three incidents in four rallies for Latvala. Equally he’s quite capable of winning every event from now on - provided that he keeps it out of the scenery. In terms of raw pace nobody comes close: even his team-mate Petter Solberg suggested that Latvala “must have left his brain in the service park” after he set a blistering pace in the Qualifying Stage.
However, the fastest driver isn’t necessarily the best driver. That accolade still belongs to Sebastien Loeb - whose only weakness seems to be occasional selective deafness. “The braking was correct, the speed approaching the corner was correct, even the angle was correct - it was just the direction that was wrong,” quipped Loeb on Friday, with the easy-going confidence of a man who knows that this is just a minor setback.
Normal service will be resumed in Argentina, but Loeb’s misfortune just underlines how damaging retirement can be to your championship prospects. This is why Ford can only kick themselves at a missed opportunity, although fourth place - which then became third - for Solberg was a remarkable save under the circumstances, which owes a lot to the good fortune of Friday afternoon’s stages being cancelled. Had they run then he would have had an extra 15 minutes of penalties and been nowhere.
If however Solberg loses the championship by 10 points or less, he’ll look back at this event with even deeper regret. There would, in theory at least, have been the option of boosting Solberg up to second at the end of the rally (which would have become first) by shifting aside Ford privateers Mads Ostberg and Evgeny Novikov. The fact that Ford and M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson didn’t is either laudable or risky, depending on your perspective. And it would have been slightly bizarre to have had a winner care of Rally 2.
Novikov was one of the star acts of the whole drama. Having battled a broken throttle pedal, the young Russian made Denis Giraudet the oldest co-driver ever to stand on a WRC podium. Giraudet’s legendary career has taken in 170 WRC starts, and he’s claimed podium finishes with a total of seven different drivers. But you get the sense that this one is going to be special, coming 10 years after the last one. “Some people need cosmetic surgery to help them stay young,” said the 56-year-old. “But all I need is Evgeny. There’s no limit for him...”
As for Ostberg, the bemused winner, he kept his head while all around were losing theirs. His was a quietly impressive rally, but he never thought for a minute that he would end up on the top step of the podium. “We just couldn’t live with Mikko - he was in a different league,” said Ostberg.
And yet it’s Ostberg who is going home with the biggest trophy, having comprehensively proved a point. The youngsters aren’t just knocking on the door - they’re already beating it down. As well as the podium heroes, Estonia’s Ott Tanak also showed stunning pace over some of the trickiest stages that we will see all year. Or so most of the drivers hope, anyway.
The FIA WRC Academy also proved that the future of the sport is in safe hands, with Northern Irishman Alastair Fisher taking a resounding victory on the opening round of this year’s series. If you thought Portugal was difficult in a World Rally Car, try it in a two-wheel-drive car that has half the horsepower. The amount of mud meant that some cars fell off even on the road sections, and there was no soft option tyre either to help the youngsters out. Yet somehow Fisher managed to keep it on the road. Not just him, but every driver who managed to do that over the last four days, deserves a curtain call.