Ford World Rally Team takes on next week's FIA World Rally Championship encounter in Portugal intent on carrying forward the form displayed in Mexico earlier this month, where its Fiesta RS World Rally Car topped the speed test rankings after stepping up its dirt road pace.
Rally de Portugal is already regarded as the most technically difficult gravel round of the season, as narrow tracks, blind crests, and trees and stones lining the roadside, leave no room for error. However, the organisers have made this year's rally even tougher by introducing new roads, night-time competition and extending the competitive distance by almost 13 per cent.
Given Mexico's standing as a specialist event due to altitude, Portugal represents the first 'traditional' gravel rally of the kind which comprise the bulk of the championship. It is regarded as the truest form guideline so far, and offers Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg the opportunity to lay down a marker for the six loose-surface rounds to come.
After being a regular fixture since the WRC was launched in 1973, Rally de Portugal dropped out of the series in 2002. It was reborn in 2007 with a new home in the Algarve holiday region on the south coast and has quickly developed into one of the most popular rounds. The fourth round of the WRC season is based on the edge of Faro, with most of the competition in the hills above the town, mixing fast, open roads with technical sections on hard, abrasive tracks. Thursday afternoon's start ceremony is in Lisbon, after which drivers tackle three tests in darkness which have been planned on higher, open ground to combat the threat of hanging dust in the still evening air.
“We prepared for the night stages by driving in the dark at our test this week,” said Latvala who, along with new team-mate Solberg, won exactly half the special stages in Mexico, "I drove 48km on Wednesday and that really helped for what could be a crucial part of the rally. It depends on the weather, but hanging dust could be an issue and three-minute intervals between cars may not be enough to allow it to clear. It's on the limit, and the organisers may have to consider four minutes.
“It's difficult to say now if we should be first in the start order, or brave enough to run further back. First would ensure a clear run, but the disadvantage would be the slippery loose gravel on the road surface which would be cleared if we start lower down. The important thing is to ensure we do well in qualifying so we're in a position to make that choice. Then it's in our own hands.
“It's hard to follow the rhythm of the roads in Portugal. There are many new roads in Friday's leg, so we must concentrate hard when making our pace notes in the recce. I had a fantastic feeling with the car in Mexico. It was disappointing not to finish, and that's brought a little more pressure, but the confidence gained from our speed is a real boost for the gravel rounds to come.”
The 26-year old has a best result of third last year from his four starts in Portugal, while Solberg's best result is second, from when the rally was held in the Algarve for the first time in 2007.
“Portugal is a good rally and I'm hungry for success there,” said the Norwegian veteran, “I'm third in the drivers' championship so I feel positive and I had a good test in Portugal this week. I drove for 220km and made a few more improvements to the set-up of my car. I know from the last round that the Fiesta RS WRC is fast on gravel, so hopefully these improvements will make it even better.