The top five rally angles to follow this weekend

After a four-week gap, attentions turn back to the World Rally Championship this weekend. Rally Portugal is the fourth round of WRC as crews face gravel for the first time this year.

Maiden City Motor Club’s Eakin Bros Stages Rally also provides a more local spectacle in Northern Ireland on Saturday.

Here are five points of interest to keep your eye on.

1. The Sebastiens are back

It has been four months since Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier’s season-opening showdown on Rally Monte-Carlo.

Loeb’s fairytale win on his M-Sport debut was a dream result for WRC as it entered its new Rally1 era. Reigning champion Ogier was on course for his ninth Monte-Carlo victory before a puncture dropped him to second.

Both Frenchmen restart their part-time seasons in Portugal and give the rally an extra edge of anticipation as the hybrid Rally1s hit gravel for the first time.

Loeb has won Rally Portugal twice before while Ogier is a five-time winner of the arduous event.

The latter benefits from a low road position on Friday which perhaps makes him the most likely to break Kalle Rovanpera’s recent run of two world rally wins.

2. Evans’ time to shine

Ninth. That is where pre-season championship contenders Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin find themselves a quarter of the way into their quest to become world champions.

Crashes, a hybrid issue, and punctures have cast a dark shadow over the Britans’ opening three rounds.

Rally-winning pace has been present, stage wins on each event so far are proof of that. But a serious points-scoring result has slipped away on each occasion.

It’s a stark contrast to the start Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen have had to their year. Evans and Martin risk their Finnish team-mates running away at the top of WRC’s standings should they not turn the tide this weekend.

Like Ogier, Evans benefits from his starting position on Portugal’s loose surface stages. With a string of gravel events ahead, Evans will be hoping they bring a shift in his form.

He’ll need to turn the tide quickly, however, as Rovanpera is already 59 points ahead.

3. A world-class race for Rally2 honours

WRC 2 has hosted plenty of great battles in recent years and Rally Portugal could very well be another. Andreas Mikkelsen, Teemu Suninen, and Oliver Solberg will be gunning to prove they are the fastest on gravel in Rally2’s level playing field.

Solberg steps down from his top-tier seat as Dani Sordo makes his Rally1 debut for Hyundai. Suninen will drive another factory Rally2 Hyundai as he continues to rebuild his rally career after an unsettled period with M-Sport.

Nikolay Gryazin, Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Eric Camilli, and winner in Croatia – Yohan Rossel will all be aiming for glory too in an entry that epitomises the strength of the Rally2 category.

4. Irish representation from top to bottom

Cross your fingers as Ireland has hopes of success across the board in Portugal this weekend.

Craig Breen and Paul Nagle make their gravel debut for M-Sport on an event they haven’t featured on since 2018. It is perhaps their biggest test in Ford overalls to date but a solid result would put them in good stead heading to Rally Sardinia in two weeks’ time.

Josh McErlean and James Fulton showed their Portuguese potential last month by leading a warm-up event based in the same area as Rally Portugal. They claimed one WRC 3 podium last year and a similar feat in WRC 2 Junior is an achievable stretch goal.

Junior WRC heads for its third round of the season as Jon Armstrong and William Creighton aim to strengthen their championship credentials.

Armstrong holds a joint championship lead after a win on Rally Sweden and a super-rally finish on Croatia Rally. A crash during last weekend’s European Rally Championship visit to the Canary Islands Rally wasn’t ideal for the Fermanagh ace but he knows he has the underlying pace to set the record straight in Portugal.

Creighton too had a troublesome Croatia Rally but he’ll be hoping his soft spot for Portugal’s intense stages will result in a top-scoring finish that would fling him and co-driver Liam Regan up the Junior WRC leaderboard.

Two more all-Ireland crews will tackle Rally Portugal, both in Philip Case Rally Sport Hyundais. Paul Rowley teams up with leading ITRC co-driver Andy Hayes to tackle his maiden world rally. Meanwhile regular competitors in Portugal Pauric Duffy and Jeff Case will make their second appearance on the WRC event.

5. Warming up for Donegal

The Northern Ireland Rally Championship returns on this Saturday’s Eakin Bros Stages Rally. Based in the north-west, it is the closest rally geographically to June’s Donegal International Rally.

As a result, several crews will be hoping to dial man and machine into a strong position over the closed-road event’s six stages.

Top of the list is 2019 winner and recent Circuit of Ireland pacesetter Desi Henry. The Ford Fiesta Rally2 driver hasn’t travelled to many rallies in 2022 and is hoping to regain mileage on his rivals ahead of Donegal.

Cathan McCourt and Jonny Greer will give Henry a good run for his money. Both have shown strong turns of pace on Irish Tarmac events already this year.

Donagh Kelly is in a similar boat to Henry as he hopes to get back up to speed after a three-month break.

Damien Tourish, Ryan Loughran, and Adrian Hetherington top the two-wheel-drive entry in three Class 7 Ford Escorts.

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Photos courtesy of M-Sport, Red Bull Content Pool, and RedPoint Portugal

Adam Hall

Brought up in the Irish countryside, Adam was never far away from the world of rallying. From following local events like the Circuit of Ireland and the Ulster Rally, Adam now puts the stories from stages all around the world into words through his website Rally Insight.

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