Mikko Hirvonen says is hopeful that the revised engine fitted to his Ford Focus WRC this weekend in Portugal will give him the chance to fight Sebastien Loeb for a first win of the year.
The Finn currently lies second in the championship standings and is eight points behind Loeb after following up a third place finish in Ireland with back-to-back second places in Norway and Cyprus.
Hirvonen will look to improve on his fifth place the last time Portugal featured on the WRC calendar back in 2007, and said he was hopeful that the improved performance from the Focus' engine would allow him to fight Loeb for victory on the first true gravel event of the year.
"I'm confident of matching the pace I showed [on day two and three in Cyprus] because my speed, especially on the drier sections, gave me plenty of belief for the gravel events to come,” he said. “The engine upgrades are another step forward. Although the nature of the regulations means huge steps forward are impossible to achieve, there is more power and a bit more response and that will all help," he said.
"They are enjoyable stages to drive and Portugal is the rally I like most in the southern Europe and Mediterranean regions. The roads will be abrasive if conditions are dry because some sections have a solid bedrock base with a sandy surface on top. You don't see many loose rocks compared to Greece and Turkey, but the hard base does make it hard for tyres.”
Team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala said he too was hopeful of a solid run in Portugal, adding that he was more confident going into a run of seven straight gravel events on the calendar.
"The start to the season was tough, and the rallies in Ireland and Cyprus were probably the most difficult I will face this year,” he said. “Now we start the gravel events which comprise the bulk of the championship and I'm happy about that. I've tested the new engine and while it's not always easy to feel small improvements behind the wheel, I'm sure we will see them in our times.
"The road surface is very abrasive and hard for the tyres, but it gives good grip. The tracks aren't rough and the stages contain a mix of narrow sections and wider areas. It's important to be careful on the exit of corners because there are often small trees on the outside waiting to catch a driver who slides wide so keeping the driving line precise is crucial.”