Thanks to wins in Monte-Carlo and Mexico, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena start the Portuguese round as leaders of the Drivers' World Championship standings. They also have an impressive record in the Rally de Portugal, but that doesn't mean they're taking anything for granted this time around.

"This is the first rally where we will really be able to gauge the relative strengths of the crews," pointed out Sebastien Loeb. "In Mexico, we saw that our rivals had made a significant step forward performance-wise at an event where they had not previously done that well. If the same is true in Portugal, then we're going to have a very close fight on our hands!

Loeb was doing all he could to make sure that he and Elena went into the weekend in the best possible form, of course.

"As far as we're concerned, our preparations for this rally have gone well. Our DS3 WRC has been quick on all surfaces since the start of the season and I think it will be no different in Portugal."

Loeb was particularly pleased that the drivers are once again able to change tyres for the gravel stages in Portugal.

"The old rules jeopardised our safety", he insisted. "I remember having driven on muddy stages with hard tyres: it was terrifying! [This year], in addition to the 40 'hard' Michelin Latitude Cross tyres, we can use up to 10 soft tyres. If it doesn't rain, these extra tyres will be redundant. But if it does rain, they will enable us to avoid taking any unnecessary risks to stay on the road."

Citro?n Total World Rally Team's other car, manned by Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, is also getting stronger as the season progresses. Fourth in Monte-Carlo and runner-up in Sweden and Mexico, Hirvonen now lies second overall in the Drivers' World Championship, 16 points behind his team-mate Loeb.

"I feel confident for this rally," said the Finn. "In Mexico, I managed to set some good times and was neck and neck with Seb on day one."

But he admitted that he was still getting used to the switch from Ford to Citro?n. "I still have to work on adapting my driving style to the DS3 WRC," he said.

"I tend to push too hard and end up getting the car too sideways. The engineers even said they were considering removing the handbrake!" he laughed. "When I drive like that, I note that my times aren't so good. So I need to work on that, but I think I'll be even better in Portugal."

Thanks to Loeb and Hirvonen's join efforts, the Citro?n Total World Rally Team has built up a healthy 38-point lead in the Manufacturers' World Championship. and is looking to sustain its early season momentum at an event that it has won for the last three years.

Reconnaissance for the rally was underway on Monday in the Algarve, and the qualifying stage is due to be held on Wednesday morning. The Rally de Portugal will get start from Lisbon at lunchtime on Thursday.

Day one will include a street stage in the capital, followed by three timed stages on gravel run in the evening. The rest of the weekend has a more conventional look to it, with three legs run on a clover-shaped route in the mountains of the Loul? region.

After Mexico, Rally de Portugal is this season's second gravel rally. As the rally will be held on lower altitude roads than in Central America, drivers will be able to call upon all of the power offered by their 1.6-litre turbocharged direct injection engines.



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