THE 2013 FIA World Rally Championship stages its fourth round in Portugal this weekend and against expectations that the new Volkswagen team could dominate again a lingering illness clouds the prospects of its star driver Sebastien Ogier taking a third straight win.
After a five-week break, the action resumes in the Algarve region at Vodafone Rally de Portugal, the second of six consecutive gravel events preceding Coates Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 12-15 September..
Portugal is seen as the first traditional loose-surface event of the season and the first decent opportunity for teams to benchmark themselves against the competition.
The incident-filled 2012 Rally de Portugal, on which three leaders were eliminated and the eventual “winner” excluded to gift a maiden win to Mad Ostberg, provides few clues to potential winners this year.
But further back, 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 slower Super 2000 Skoda last year and was never in contention for a hat-trick.
The current championship leader’s form in winning on the gravel roads of Mexico last month and in Sweden’s deep snow in February suggests he is more than comfortable in Volkswagen’s Polo R.
However, Volkswagen Motorsport continues to be concerned about Ogier’s recovery from a viral infection, which kept him out of several scheduled activities over the past few days.
“I am far away from my top form,” he said on Thursday morning, ahead of qualifying.
“Portugal was my first victory in WRC in 2010 and I won again in 2011 so I know I can perform here, but it will be difficult this year because my health is not perfect.”
In a promising form reversal after a dismal run in Mexico, Spain’s Dani Sordo topped qualifying in a Citroen, although it was a tightly-fought session.
Ogier was 0.7 sec. behind in second, his teammate Jari-Matti Latvala a further 0.1 sec. off in third and Ostberg fourth, again 0.1 sec. behind in his Ford – 0.9 sec. across four drivers of three different makes.
Finnish driver Latvala has winning potential, but only if he can curb a tendency to crash on Algarve roads – most notably his frightening barrel roll down a mountain in 2009.
With two Intercontinental Rally Challenge titles to his name, Volkswagen’s new boy Andreas Mikkelsen also has the ability, but like Latvala is down on seat time compared to Ogier.
At Citroen, main team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Sordo struggled for speed in Mexico. Both claim a Portugal pre-event test improved their DS3s – and Sordo’s victory in the Fafe Rally Sprint last weekend was an encouraging sign.
Of six M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS 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 Portugal 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.
The Rally de Portugal stages include a mixture of open roads and technical and narrow sections, characterised by their abrasive surface.