PHOTO: Latvala cuts a corner on the Portugal shakedown stage (Volkswagen photo)
JARI-Matti Latvala has maintained his strong recent form to claim fastest time in the shakedown session for Vodafone Rally de Portugal, which starts today.
The Finn posted fastest time in a Volkswagen Polo R on his second run through the 4.98km test on Wednesday afternoon.
He had a comfortable 1.9sec margin over teammate Sébastien Ogier until WRC returnee Henning Solberg came within 0.8sec of usurping Latvala on his fourth run in a Pirelli-shod Ford Fiesta RS.
The sun was shining throughout the session, but after days of rain the stage remained wet in places.
“The car felt very good I was very happy with its general handing,” Latvala told wrc.com. “The stage was not exactly muddy but the ground was a bit damp, so we were running the soft tyre and the grip was good in these conditions.”
Drivers face a better weather outlook for the start of the rally on Thursday night, local time, when they take to the 3.27 km Lisboa super special stage. Less rain, high temperatures and more sunshine are predicted as the field moves on to the Algarve for three days of tricky gravel stages in the Baixo Alentejo and Serra do Caldeirão hills, north of Faro
Behind Ogier in shakedown, Dani Sordo was fourth on his first gravel outing in Hyundai’s i20. The Spaniard set the quickest time of Hyundai’s three-car squad.
Mikko Hirvonen and Juho Hanninen completed the top six.
Rally Portugal will comprise 16 stages, concluding on Sunday.
It is being keenly viewed as the first real opportunity of the 2014 WRC season to compare the teams’ competitiveness on a relatively even playing field after extreme conditions of weather, altitude and road surface in the first three rounds in Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Mexico.
The argument goes that only when the championship arrives on the gravel in the hills above the Algarve holiday region that everyone can see a form guide for the season.
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 straightforward round with nothing much for drivers to worry about?
Not a bit of it. Many argue that Portugal is the most difficult gravel round on the calendar.
It mixes fast, open roads with narrower tracks, which are littered with crests. The challenging 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.
“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,” Latvala said.
“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.”