Usually you can get a few clues from looking at what happened last year. But in the case of the incident-filled 2012 Rally de Portugal, that’s not much help.
Last time, early leader Sebastien Loeb crashed out after a rare lack of concentration, while treacherous road conditions led to crashes for the two leaders that followed - Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg. The rally was won by Mikko Hirvonen, who was then excluded, which gifted a maiden WRC win to a surprised Mads Ostberg.
Look further back however and Sebastien Ogier’s record stands out. The Frenchman is a two-time winner in Portugal (with Citroen in 2010 and 2011) but was armed only with a Super 2000 spec Skoda last year, so was never in contention for a hat-trick. He did a terrific job though, finishing seventh ahead of eight World Rally Cars.
Added to that, Ogier’s dominating form on the gravel roads of Mexico last month suggests that he is more than comfortable in Volkswagen’s Polo R. So, unsurprisingly, he is our tip to take another win this week.
Ogier’s team-mate Latvala has winning potential too, but only if he can curb a worrying tendency to crash on Algarve roads – most notably his frightening barrel roll down a mountain in 2009.
With two IRC titles to his name, Volkswagen’s new boy Andreas Mikkelsen also has the ability but like Latvala he’s down on seat time compared to Ogier. By Mikkelsen’s own admission this season is about learning the car and the WRC rallies, so we shouldn’t expect too much from him on his debut in the Polo R. Mind you, that’s what Volkswagen said about its 2013 expectations before starting Rally Monte-Carlo, and look at them now.
At Citroen, Loeb’s early exit and Hirvonen’s post event exclusion made last year’s Portugal one to forget. But beyond the two incidents there were concerns too about the speed of the DS3 – highlighted by the fact that Hirvonen’s victory came without a single stage win.
How much extra pace Citroen has found since then remains to be seen, but main team drivers Hirvonen and Dani Sordo struggled on the latest gravel outing in Mexico. Both claim the team’s Portugal pre-event test has improved things - and Sordo’s Fafe Rally Sprint is an encouraging sign. Both remain contenders for top honours this week, and both will be motivated to deliver the goods for Citroen because with Sebastien Loeb sitting this one out, the French firm’s six point lead in the manufacturers’ standings looks vulnerable.
Of the six M-Sport Ford drivers, Mads Ostberg, Evgeny Novikov and Thierry Neuville are the ones to watch. No matter how he got it, Ostberg is out to defend his 2012 rally win and proved in Mexico that he has rally leading pace and a rare ability to worry Ogier.
Like Ostberg, Novikov and Neuville represent the WRC’s next generation of star drivers and both are more than capable of upsetting the established stars. Juho Hanninen would have joined them too, had personal reasons not kept him off the start list.
You can find out more about this year’s entries, including F1 ace Robert Kubica, in our separate story.
Next page: On this rally last year, Tyre options