Portugal. Fafe. Arganil. Three words that lift the hairs from the back of fans’ necks the world over.
That country, those places, they really are that special. And next week’s Vodafone Rally de Portugal (30 May - 2 June) is shaping up to be one of the best. Whichever way you turn, there’s plenty to smile about for the Matosinhos-based event.
Let’s start with Arganil. Granted the current generation of drivers, co-drivers and fans might not have heard too much about it as it hasn’t been on the timetable since 2001. But you don’t have to dig too deep to learn more of the legend. In fact, you don’t have to dig at all – keep your eyes on wrc.com and we’ll talk you through the opening day’s most famous name.
All three of Friday’s stages return after an 18-year absence, so it’s safe to say the leaders will be making new pace notes. Not even the sport’s most experienced driver ever, Toyota star Jari-Matti Latvala, has driven these roads in the WRC.
As we saw last time out in Chile, the writing and reading of new notes is a curveball which always provides an unexpected twist.
The weekend is more familiar and most familiar of all is Fafe, arguably the WRC’s most famous leap. Doubling as Sunday’s Wolf Power Stage, Fafe is an unmissable treat for tens of thousands of fans who camp there for days in advance.
The atmosphere when the first car flies into view is extraordinary. Standing among the masses, it comes as no surprise that Portugal was one of 2018’s best-supported rallies, contributing in no small part to a roadside WRC fan figure that topped four million last year.
The roads and fans are real favourites, but what about the action?
The WRC arrives on European gravel for the first time with Citroën’s Sébastien Ogier top of the table, with Ott Tänak (Toyota) and Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) 10 and 12 points adrift.
All three have won on the loose this season, but Chile winner Tänak is the man to keep an eye on. His speed was one of the south American talking points and he’ll be keen to erase the memory of an early Portuguese bath last year.
While Ogier has fond memories of Portugal, scoring his first win in the country in 2010, his most recent recollection is of sliding wide in a slow left-hander and dropping off the road and out of Friday last year. He’ll be keen to put that right.
Another man on a mission to put things right is Neuville, who returns after a sixth-gear roll put him out of contention at round six.
Beyond the top three, there’s Sébastien Loeb looking to back up his impressive maiden podium for Hyundai in Chile. The Korean squad leads the manufacturers’ championship and has a strong look about it, with Dani Sordo having already celebrated in these parts after winning Rallye Serras de Fafe, a national event in February, in an i20 R5.
Add in the WRC debut of Škoda’s all-new Fabia R5 evo and the return of defending WRC 2 champion Jan Kopecký to drive one of two factory cars and, like is, you’ll be counting the minutes until the Paredes shakedown next Thursday.