Wednesday | 26 Mar 2014

Portugal countdown: the challenge

We might be almost a quarter of the way through the season already, but the WRC cognoscenti will have you believe that it’s in Portugal that we really get to learn which teams are on the pace and which ones might be in for a tough season.

The argument goes that the opening three rounds are so specialised that it’s only when the championship arrives on the gravel in the hills above the Algarve holiday region that drivers encounter less extreme conditions and everyone can see a form guide for the season.

Well, that might be true – but we reckon that form guide probably won’t indicate that Volkswagen, winner of the opening three rounds, is in for a rubbish year…….

So, if Portugal lacks the unpredictable weather and complex tyre choices of Monte-Carlo, the snow of Sweden or the power-sapping altitude of Mexico, is it a straight-forward round with nothing much for drivers to worry about?

Not a bit of it. Many would state forcibly that Portugal is the most difficult dirt round on the calendar.

It mixes fast, open roads with narrower tracks, which are littered with crests. The dodgy part from a driver’s perspective is that there are frequently corners hiding behind those blind crests.

Jari-Matti Latvala knows too well what that can mean. In 2009 he misjudged his speed into a crest, followed by a slow left corner. The resulting accident, in which Latvala’s Ford Focus RS plunged almost 200 metres down a hillside and rolled 12 times, was one of the biggest WRC crashes ever.

Jari-Matti Latvala - won't forget 2009 in Portugal

It’s hard for drivers to settle into a rhythm and pin-point accurate pace notes are a must. In some places you can get away with a note that is not 100 per cent correct, but not in Portugal.

If it’s not the crests that catch out a driver, then being too aggressive can bring the rally to an early conclusion.

Trees and stones line the stages, both close to the road on the inside of corners where drivers look to save a few tenths of a second by cutting, and on the outside where those carrying too much speed might find themselves if they slide wide.

The roads have a hard clay base and are abrasive, so drivers must think about tyre wear, especially if temperatures are high. However, the weather forecast suggests we might be sheltering from rain rather than basking in sunshine and Portugal’s clay becomes muddy and slippery very quickly in the wet……