5 big takeaways from Rally Portugal

The dawning of the European gravel season is always seen as an important marker in the World Rally Championship. A chance to truly see everyone’s pace; where they all stack up. Little did we know we’d be treated to such a dramatic event!

Sebastien Ogier emerged the winner, breaking the record he’d previously shared with Markku Alen for the most Rally Portugal wins. The victory was also the 60th of his illustrious career.

But the story of Rally Portugal 2024 goes far beyond the mark it’ll have on the history books. Here are the five big takeaways from round five of this year’s WRC:

The WRC has never been tighter

Saturday’s chaos ensures that this year’s Rally Portugal won’t ever be forgotten, but the tightness of the field on Friday shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Across the leg’s eight stages, no single test was won by more than 3.2 seconds – with five of them settled by less than two seconds – leaving the top four at the end of the day to be covered by just 5.4s.

These are gaps we’ve come to expect on rallies like Finland and even Sweden, but not Portugal. With no Rally1 retirements on the opening day (that was all reserved for Saturday morning’s madness), the true competitive picture in the WRC was laid bare – and it was sensational.

Road position, of course, played a factor, but the effect was not as pronounced as it could have been, with damp sections on stages covered by trees. The WRC has plenty of problems it is trying to solve, but this was a great advert for how competitive the top level really is at the moment.

Rovanpera’s part-time campaign takes another tumble

Kalle Rovanpera has never been known as a ‘win it or bin it’ kind of driver, but his 2024 results card would suggest that he is. Three rallies into this partial WRC campaign and the world champion has crashed twice and won once. And intriguingly, both times he’s crashed he’s been in the lead of the rally.

In Portugal, he wasn’t happy with the set-up of his Toyota on Friday, but still led the way by a single second, before destroying his opposition on Saturday’s first stage to move 6.7s clear. But then it all went wrong on the very next stage as the Finn missed his braking point and rolled his GR Yaris Rally1 into a tree.

Weirdly, just as in Sweden, Rovanpera was not the only driver to crash in this section of stage. First on the scene was WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg, who was distracted by the sight of Rovanpera’s off, misheard the next pacenote and crashed himself. But – at least in this writer’s opinion – it’s hard to imagine Rovanpera making this sort of mistake if he had a championship fight to concern himself about.

That’s not to suggest that Rovanpera isn’t motivated on rallies this year, or that he doesn’t care about winning anymore. But certainly, it does soften the blow from any such error, even if his accident did cost Toyota valuable points in the manufacturers’ championship – a fact rally winner Ogier wasn’t shy to subtly point out.

Evans on the championship back foot

Elfyn Evans was the first to admit that things didn’t really go his way in Portugal. A puncture on Friday, and of course the bizarre sight of co-driver Scott Martin reading his pacenotes off his phone after leaving the book at the end of a stage, made it difficult for him to be in a fighting position on Saturday with a difficult road position for the second day in succession.

And then a stone damaged his Toyota’s cooling system on Sunday, denying him any chance to score Super Sunday points too. In fairness, Evans deserves a huge amount of credit to even make the finish, and therefore secure the six points he picked up on Friday/Saturday, but that’s unfortunately where the positives end.

With Thierry Neuville defying expectations to claim a podium finish – boosted by a Power Stage win and second in the Super Sunday standings – the championship gap between the two has quadrupled from six to 24 points, while Ott Tanak (who scored the most points at the weekend) is now just seven points shy of Evans.

The season is only five rounds old; eight rounds still remain. But already it’s looking as if Evans is relying on a Neuville blunder or mechanical failure to make any serious championship inroads, such is the form the Belgian is currently in and the difficulty of making points gains with the new points system.

Fourmaux’s got no questions left to answer

The positives have been never-ending for Adrien Fourmaux in 2024, and that didn’t stop in Portugal – even if he did lose his third spot in the championship to Tanak.

Faced with a difficult hand in terms of road position on Friday, Fourmaux couldn’t quite compete with Neuville, but was ahead of Evans anyway before the Welshman’s weekend went south. Seventh place at the end of the leg may not seem astonishing, but considering the lack of expected attrition and his road position handicap, it was the most that could realistically have been expected,

The M-Sport pilot then went on to claim fourth overall as others fell by the wayside, but he did overhaul Dani Sordo on merit – a seven-time podium finisher in Portugal – to add another handy batch of points to his championship tally.

There’s nothing surprising about this form anymore; it’s happening too consistently for it to be a flash in the pan. But aside from his fast-gravel form, Fourmaux’s not got many questions left to answer this year. And if his speed in Finland in the Rally2 Fiesta last year is anything to go by, that really shouldn’t be a question either.

Championship picture unchanged in WRC2

Oliver Solberg: crashed while distracted passing Kalle Rovanpera’s Toyota.

Gus Greensmith: beached on the side of the road making a marginal mistake on the exit of a downhill right-hander.

Pierre-Louis Loubet: crashed.

Teemu Suninen: crashed.

Sami Pajari: mounted a plastic barrier on Thursday’s super-special and clocked a minute’s worth of penalties repairing it before Friday’s first stage. And he too then crashed on Sunday.

Kris Meeke: disadvantaged by running lower down the order, before crashing.

Yohan Rossel: punctured, and was then docked a further minute for restarting while co-driver Arnaud Dunand hadn’t completely fastened his seatbelts. To make matters worse, the Frenchmen clocked a further minute’s penalty for an early arrival to a time control.

With such a packed and star-studded entry for WRC2 in Portugal, absolutely nobody had Spain’s Jan Solans pinned as the victory favourite. Yet it was the 26-year-old who wound up victorious – taking Toyota’s first win in the WRC2 category – after a super scrap with Irishman Josh McErlean on his WRC debut in a Toksport Skoda Fabia RS Rally2.

While this was an unbelievable result for both Solans and McErlean, and third-placed Lauri Joona who claimed his first WRC2 podium, neither is expected to be in the thick of this year’s fight for the championship.

So, on the weekend where all the big-hitters were in town and had the opportunity to score big against their rivals, it’s effectively as you were as far as the title permutations are concerned.

Jan Solans was a surprise victor in the WRC2 category in Portugal.

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Luke Barry

Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com
Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com