There is a special change of format for the seventh round on the 2019 WRC series, the gravel Vodafone Rally of Portugal, the end of the first half of this year’s season.   Although based again at Matosinhos close to Porto, the route does not this year venture north of the River Lima and starts in Coimbra, 100km south of Porto, spending two days in the more southerly regions in central Portugal. This shift of direction enables the route to visit parts of famous old stages in the Arganil hills, once the toughest area of the event and source of many rallying legends. No stages are held on the Thursday evening and following the late cancellation of stages in Gaia, there will be only one super special spectator stage, at the rallycross course of Lousada.  There are now 18 stages, totalling 306km, with Saturday being the longest day. The 61 entries received for the 2019 Vodafone Rally Portugal is the smallest in Portugal since 2012. For the first time since Sweden M-Sport have a three-car entry, thanks to the promised drive for Gus Greensmith.   There was a late decision at Hyundai to substitute the entry for Mikkelsen for a car for Sebastien Loeb. Highlight of the event is the WRC debut for the Skoda Fabia R5 Evos for Kopecky and Rovanpera. Four entries have been made in WRC2 Pro among the WRC event record number of 32 R5 cars – more than half the entry.  Only one entry is made under National rules which is for a Mitsubishi Evo X. Like with Argentina and then Chile, various components to be used in Portugal and then Sardinia are specially linked with Sardinina which follows two weeks later. With the start in Coimbra being held far away from the Service Park in Matosinhos, there is a special tyre fitting zone immediately after the start, followed by another zone after the first three stages in Arganil. With only 94km of stages on the Friday, there is no midday service on that day, or on the short final day. Medium tyres are the prime tyres. The main local fan interest in the event is the return of the route to the Arganil region inland from Coimbra.  In the days when the event covered the major of central and northern Portugal, the stages in the Arganil Hills were held late in the event.
Kris Meeke's Rally of Portugal ended in another big accident. Photo: Holmes

Kris Meeke's Rally of Portugal ended in a big accident last year, after which he was sacked by Citroen.

The myriad of gravel tracks provided countless combinations of routes for the stages, but joined up together the stages could extend to around 60km in length.  These stages provided a mecca of interest for fans in the centre of the country. Arganil disappeared from the itineraries when the rally moved for a while to the Algarve region and the central servicing rules prevented detours to the region, even when the event returned further north. Only by starting the rally in Coimbra this year has it been possible to return by the Arganil stages, even if progressive asphalting of roads in the region now restricts the areas of the hills which can be used. Portugal Rally Team by Team Citroen The team felt the car was more competitive in Chile than it had been in Argentina.  The only unexpected problem being the fire extinguisher which suddenly operated and almost incapacitated Sebastien Ogier during the Power Stage - on which he was second fastest (!). Main development work for Portugal was set-up related but Ostberg’s R5 has new rear suspension geometry. Both Ogier and teammate Esapekka Lappi have done one day test each in Sardinia to cover both events.  Both drivers use their Corsica cars. Portugal holds fond memories for Ogier, it is where he scored his first ever World Rally Championship win in 2010, though this was when the rally was based in Algarve.  It was in Portugal in 2017 that Lappi made his first ever event in a World Rally Car (a Toyota).
Hayden Paddon Rally Portugal

Hayden Paddon contested Rally Portugal for Hyundai last year.

Hyundai After his lacklustre performance in Chile, Andreas Mikkelsen is being rested in Portugal and Sebastien Loeb will make an unplanned extra event appearance in the team here this year. Team Director Andrea Adamo said: “This decision was not taken lightly.  We need to move forward as a team and make the most effective use of our versatile crew line-up.  We are trying hard to find a way to get Andreas’s confidence back.” Loeb tested in Portugal in mid May but that work had been intended to be for Rally Chile. Loeb’s entry is curious.  He has never competed in North Portugal, though he twice won the rally in Algarve.  One day tests each for Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo in Sardinia.  Sordo has his Mexico car, Loeb has Mikkelsen’s Mexico car and Neuville has his Corsica winning car. Meanwhile Jari Huttunen was given a World Rally Car drive at the Finnish championship Riihimaki Ralli. M-Sport Nothing technically unexpected happened in Chile, there are no technical changes in Portugal.  The team had four days’ testing in Portugal, one and a half each for Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, one day for Gus Greensmith. Greensmith had already had a test in Greystoke in Britain last year. Evans drives his Australia 2018 car, Suninen his Chile car and 22 year old Greensmith drives Evans’ Chile car on his debut appearance in a World Rally Car. Lukasz Pieniazek drives the team’s WRC2 Pro car on this event – and will also do so on all the remaining European rounds. Toyota Portugal has great historical significance as the first official WRC event the manufacturer entered (1973), but which they did not win in this country until 1991. No major issues were experienced in Chile and there is nothing technically new for Portugal.  Each driver had at least a one day test in Portugal in mid May.  The same three cars as used in Corsica. No WRC driver has rallied on the Arganil stages before, but people behind the rally scene know them fondly, including Toyota Gazoo Racing chief Tommi Makinen, who said:  “The Friday this year is going to be new for the drivers with stages around Arganil: the last time I went there was when I won the rally (for Mitsubishi) in 2001.  It's a challenging area, with many different roads the organisers can use.”  

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