Ford World Rally Team's Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson chalked up their first victory for the squad today with a stunning performance to triumph in the Fafe Rally Sprint, a warm-up event for next weekend's Rally de Portugal.
Their win could hardly have been closer, as Solberg's Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car edged out world champion Sébastien Loeb by just two hundredths of a second.
Formerly a popular part of the Rally de Portugal route, the 6.34km Fafe gravel speed test east of Porto was resurrected for the first time since it last echoed to the sound of FIA World Rally Championship cars in 2001, after which the rally moved south to its current Algarve base.
Although a non-championship event, the Fafe Rally Sprint attracted 30 entries, among them the Fiesta RS World Rally Cars of Solberg and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala / Miikka Anttila. An estimated 100,000 fans lined the special stage, and they did not go away disappointed.
Although Latvala proved comfortably fastest on the first of three runs through the demanding stage, Solberg's second pass was swifter still, earning the popular Norwegian the right to drive the team's sole Fiesta RS WRC on the third and final test. Whilst disappointed not to make it through himself, Latvala admitted he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I loved the character of the stage,” said the 26-year-old Finn. “I'd only ever seen it on video before, and there were some difficult jumps that made it really spectacular. I don't think I've ever seen so many people on a stage, and you could really sense their enthusiasm. It's a true classic, and I had a lot of fun out there. Of course, I would have liked to be the one doing the last run, but I guess I did two days of testing last week and Petter only one, so this was his payback!”
To add a touch of local flavour, Solberg's two Portuguese mechanics attached a national flag to the roof of the 37-year-old's Fiesta RS WRC for the winner-takes-all run. Following a characteristically effervescent drive, the 2003 world champion flashed across the finish line just ahead of Loeb.
“What an unbelievable stage,” said Solberg. “There were some really big and difficult jumps, but they only made it even more exciting. We want to take our sport close to the fans, and that is exactly what we did here. This was a team effort and a team victory, for me and for Jari-Matti and for all the guys who did such a good job again with the car. It feels great to win.
“I put on a big attack. There were a lot of people generating a lot of passion, and it was fantastic to be back here again. Fafe is truly a rallying place. I'm very happy, and I hope we can continue this way in the rally. We've taken the first step, and now Jari-Matti and I need to beat everybody else next week, too,” he added.
Rally de Portugal will get underway on Thursday in Lisbon, before competitors head south to Faro via three evening stages in the Alentejo region. They then face three days of challenging gravel speed tests in the Serra do Caldeirão hills above the Algarve, covering a total of 434.77km across 22 stages.