The 2011 FIA World Rally Championship travels to Portugal for its third round late this week, promising answers at last to some key questions about the months ahead.

After battling deep snow in round one in Sweden and power-sapping high altitudes in Mexico three weeks ago, the Vodafone Rally de Portugal presents some of the world’s best gravel rallying roads - and at sea-level.

The conditions mean the rally, starting on Thursday night, is considered the first true head-to-head contest between the new-generation Ford and Citroen World Rally Cars.

Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen took the Fiesta RS WRC to its debut win in Sweden, but seven-time champion Sebastien Loeb had the upper hand with his Citroen DS3 WRC in Mexico.

All eyes also will be on the championship debut of Mini, albeit interim John Cooper Works S2000 versions in the hands of privateers Armindo Araujo and Daniel Oliviera.

The factory-backed WRC Minis won’t appear until the Italian round, but meanwhile Portugal is expected to give an indication of the potential of the cars built by the English outfit Prodrive.

There’s special interest in Portugal for Australian fans, with two crews from Down Under, Molly Taylor-Rebecca Smart and Brendan Reeves-Rhianon Smyth, pitting themselves against 18 more of the world’s best young rallying talents in the inaugural WRC Academy round.

Portugal always has been a haven for world rallying and a driver’s favourite.

Vodafone Rally de Portugal is based in the Algarve Stadium in Faro, but the first competitive action happens around the streets of Lisbon on Thursday night.

The drivers are certain to receive a rapturous welcome on the 3.27 kilometre test, which is undoubtedly going to be one of the best-supported superspecials of the season.

With Lisbon done, the winner of this year’s event will be decided after three days of all-gravel action in the hills inland from Faro.

A move from May 2010 to March could make all the difference to the roads. The beautiful Algarve coast is still firmly in spring, which often means changeable weather.

If it does turn wet, the running order can be turned on its head, with first on the road often becoming the most favoured option. But if it’s dry, the gravel will be loose and championship leader Mikko Hirvonen will be forced to sweep it clean at the front of the field on day one for the second event in succession.

Citroen drivers Sebastien Ogier and Petter Solberg could start as favourites, courtesy of running six and five on the road respectively. But winning from the front is certainly possible, even in the driest conditions, as Ogier demonstrated last season.

The Frenchman’s confidence is always high and coming back to the scene of his maiden WRC triumph should make up for his exit in Mexico, where he hit some rocks and retired from the lead on the final day.

Even after he was beaten last year, it’s hard to look past Loeb. He’s the master of dealing with road-sweeping or whatever a rally throws at him and will certainly be in the mix.

Hirvonen is likely to struggle at the front of the field, which leaves the onus on young teammate and fellow Finn Jari-Matti Latvala.

Latvala has been to Portugal three times and twice his car has departed on a tow truck. He will have the biggest job in coming to terms with the nervousness allied to the new Fiesta’s shorter wheelbase.

Beyond the usual contenders, there’s plenty of excitement for the passionate Portuguese public, with Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen returning in a Citroen and American YouTiube star Ken Block back in his Fiesta.

Identical two-wheel drive Fiesta R2 models will be the mounts for the 20 WRC Academy crews in the first of their six events this year. They will run on a shorter course, finishing on Saturday.

Rally Australian round 10 of 13 in the WRC, will be staged on 8-11 September on the Coffs  Coast of New South Wales.
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