Sébastien Loeb’s late call-up for this week’s Vodafone Rally de Portugal brings the prospect of another mouth-watering duel with FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier.
The two most successful drivers in WRC history locked horns again in Chile three weeks ago. Ogier fended off his fellow Frenchman in a final-leg fight to finish second and regain the championship lead in his quest for a seventh straight world title.
It was expected to be their last head-to-head for a while as Loeb’s part-time programme with Hyundai Motorsport was not due to continue until the second half of the season.
But Loeb’s stunning performance in Chile, when he finished third on his first gravel appearance in a Hyundai i20, prompted the Korean squad to draft him into their Portugal line-up in place of the out-of-form Andreas Mikkelsen.
Despite not having driven northern Portugal’s gravel speed tests before, Loeb has a favourable start position for Friday’s opening leg, and some believe the 45-year-old can topple Ogier and challenge for what would be a remarkable 80th WRC victory.
“Participating in this rally is an unexpected bonus,” he said. “It’s not easy to discover a new rally, especially one my opponents have already taken part in, but I’ve seen there are some beautiful stages on the first day in the Arganil area.
“It is always difficult to set goals, given that my opponents already know the rally but my goal is to be at the front in the fight for first place.”
Ogier is a Portugal master. He has five wins to his name and a sixth would break the record of Finland’s Markku Alén. It was also the scene of his first WRC victory in 2010.
His fifth podium in six rounds in Chile left him 10 points clear of Ott Tänak and 12 ahead of Thierry Neuville in the title race.
Despite a significant improvement in his Citroën C3’s performance, he has demanded further development to improve grip in slippery conditions – exactly the circumstances he will encounter on Friday from first in the start order.
“If we’re to have a chance of scoring heavily here, we’ll need to manage running first on the road as best we can on Friday’s fairly short opening leg to end the day as high up the standings as possible. On gravel, it’s crucial in order for the rest of the weekend to go well,” he said.
Tänak’s Chile win rejuvenated his bid for a maiden title while Neuville has fully recovered from a massive crash there which left the Belgian with bruising and an injured leg.
The rally, round seven of 14, begins on Friday morning. Drivers face 18 speed tests covering 306.97km before the finish in Matosinhos, near Porto, on Sunday afternoon.
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