The Return to gravel The 2023 edition of Rally Portugal

May 17, 2023


Written by: Chris Hosie

Image Credit:

The stars and cars arrived in Portugal for round five of the 2023 season. An event that saw Elfyn Evans arrive as the new championship leader after claiming an emotional victory in Croatia. Would the Toyota star leave the rest of the pack eating his dust on this historic event?

The fifth round of the World Rally Championship would take place at the Vodaphone Rally Portugal. Elfyn Evans came into the event as the new championship leader after an amazing and emotional performance on the Tarmac in Croatia. He would, undoubtedly be on the attack this weekend as the race for the title was exceptionally close. Kalle Rovanpera would be wanting to attack the event with everything he could muster, as he was just one point behind the Welshman in second place in the overall standings. Ford’s Ott Tanak and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville would also be hoping to break the Toyota stranglehold at the top of the drivers’ standings.

WRC2 saw another impeccable entry in Portugal. With over 42 cars set to compete. Among them was former Citroen and Hyundai WRC driver, Kris Meeke. He would be replacing Craig Breen at the event, however, he would be driving a Rally2 spec I20 for the Portuguese Sports & You team. The Skodas of Mikkelsen, Solberg, Greensmith, Joona and Cais would also be in attendance. Alongside the Citroens of Rossel and Roberto Heller, the works Fords of Fourmaux and Munster and the Hyundais of Kelly, Linnamae , Huttunen and McErlean. All gunning to be top dog in WRC2.

Also competing in the Rally2 brigade was the Ford of former Junior graduate Robert Virves and the Skodas of Sami Pajari, Nikolay Gryazin and Zoltan Laszlo. With the Fin and Russian hoping to mix things up amongst the Rally2 title contenders.

In WRC3, the class would see a straight duel between Finish stars Toni Herranen and Roope Korhonen. Both drivers keen to show that they were the best Finish star and be top of the overall Rally3 contingent.

The rally began on the Friday, beginning three days of fast and exciting gravel action on the famous stages of the famed Porto District. The day started out sensational for Pierre Louis Loubet. He rocketed into the lead and set the early pace in his M-Sport Puma. However, the day would turn sour as he would see that lead disappear by the third stage of the event thanks to problems with his Puma. He would continue and finish the day but in fourth place. His teammate Tanak would take the lead from his French teammate and set the pace for most of the day. But he too would hit problems and drop down to sixth.

Elfyn Evans would then become the new leader after the Ford’s problems and would set about trying to build a gap over his main rivals. His teammate Rovanpera was also on a flyer, with the goal of taking the lead of the championship off his Welsh teammate and leading the standings for the first time since the season finale last year. His caused was helped when Evans also lost the rally lead before the day was done. 

Evans went into the penultimate stage of the day with his teammate and the Hyundai’s of Neuville, Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi breathing down his neck. And it all went wrong for him. He crashed out on SS7 and in doing so, greatly compromised his chances of taking any meaningful points from this weekend. The Hyundais would end the day in second and third respectively with the lightning fast Sordo showing Neuville how it was done on the fast gravel roads of Portugal. Lappi, despite being rapid in the morning, also had issues and would do it the day in fifth between the two Fords.

Sordo was another driver who briefly led but was overtaken by Rovanpera on the days last stage. Having originally inherited the lead from the crashed Welshman. Takamoto Katsuta, the third Toyota star, also had a bad day as he retired on day 1.

In WRC2 the action was just as dramatic as it was in the Rally1 division. Adrien Fourmaux set the fastest time on the days second stage he and was up there with several of the other top runners, however, he would finish the day in 17th overall and outside the top 10 in class. The day belonged to Skoda and, more specifically to the speed and talents of two former top division stars. Oliver Solberg weathered the gravelly carnage and drama to captain his Monster Energy backed Fabia to a commanding lead the premiere development class. Followed in second by Britains own Gus Greensmith. The former M-Sport man showcasing one of his bestest drives to date, making it a Toksport 1,2. 

The Brit didn’t have it all his own way, Frenchman Rossel was in third place in his Citroen. A meat 10 seconds behind the Fabia. Andreas Mikkelsen and Marco Bulacia also had fine performances, finishing the day in fourth and fifth in class, respectively. Teemu Suninen would finish the day seventh in class with Joona and Virves rounding out the top 10. Josh McErlean and Eric Cais also had fine runs. While other suffered dramas.

Among those who’s dramas caused an unscheduled halt to their rally, included Fabrizio Zaldivar, Georg Linnamae, Alberto Heller, Nikolay Gryazin, Gregoire Munster and the returning Kris Meeke. All retiring thanks to incidents and mechanical failures. Other drivers struggling included Sami Pajari and Eamonn Kelly along with Rakan Al Rashed and Armin Kramer. The German also competing for honours in the WRC2 master's division.

The WRC3 fight saw Roope Korhonen with a commanding lead over his fellow compatriot, Herranen. The Portugal 2RM contingent, though not scoring WRC points, saw the Peugeots of Ernesto Cunha and Ricardo Sousa leading the 2-wheel drive contingent. The Renaults of Hugo Mesquita, Daniel Nunes and Gonçalo Henriques rounding out the top five. This was also the top five in the Rally4 division. Cunha also led the way in the Peugeot Rally Cup Iberica. With second belonging to Fraga Gabeiras having demoted Sousa down to third on the days penultimate test. Pedro Antunes and Vilaseca Serratosa rounded out the top five In the Iberica cup table after day 1.

Saturday would be a far tamer day for the WRC stars as most tried to find consistent rhythms, while others tried to make up some ground that they had frustratingly lost the previous day. 

It would prove to be a day of superb dominance from the defending Champion, Rovanpera. He spent the morning building up his lead over the chasing field to end the day with a sizeable 57.5 second advantage heading into the final day. His Fellow Finn, Lappi, would spend the day trying to keep his Hyundai teammates in sight and with some blistering times, he closed to within two second of the Sordo and Neuville. Setting the stage for a potential fight for third between the Finn and the Belgian. Despite this all the I20s simply couldn’t answer the flying Yaris out in front for the whole of Saturday. 

Ott tanak had a slightly better day setting some competitive times to hold onto his fifth place. A small comfort for the Estonian who, the day before, had been amongst the continual fighting and shifting of the number one slot on the timing sheets. At least his day finished with him making it home. Something which couldn’t be said of his French teammate, Loubet. Still recovering from his frustrating loss of his early lead thanks to a small fire on his Puma. His day and rally would come to a crunching halt on the days second test, SS10, when he clipped a rock and wrecked the right front suspension of his car. A frustrating end to a frustrating rally.

In WRC2, it was Solberg still out in front. Now in sixth place overall with the demise of the Ford of Loubet. Greensmith was still in second. However, after a high-performance drive, Andreas Mikkelsen took third place from Championship protagonist Rossel. Making it a Skoda and Toksport 1, 2, 3. Suninen was fifth in class and Josh McErlean was now seventh. After a very impressive drive from the young Irishman. Joona and Fourmaux were still chasing points in 10th and 11threspectively with Virves placing 14th.

In WRC3, Korhonen still headed the class. With all manner of drama’s breaking out in the two-wheel drive contingent. At days end it was Pedro Antunes leading the Rally4, followed by Italian Matteo Fontana and Cunha. The latter now leading the Portuguese 2RM division and Antunes leading the Peugeot Iberica Cup class. Cunha was second and Russian driver, Alexander Semenov, rounding out the podium places.

Sunday, the final day of Rally Portugal 2023. And it would be a day that would see the return to the winning step of the podium for Finland's Kalle Rovanpera. He managed his healthy advantage throughout the events final tests to take his first victory of 2023 and taking the championship lead from his teammates Evans. The Hyundais of Sordo, Neuville and Lappi were hoping for a sweep of second through fourth, however, Lappi set a blistering pace and moved into third behind his Spanish teammate. 

As Sordo crossed the timing beam of the rally’s final stage, he said on the radio:

 “This is for you Craig, Thank you for being with me all weekend.” 

A heartfelt message to his former teammate Craig Breen as he claimed second place in Portugal. The Irishman being involved in a tragic testing accident before Croatia last time out. Neuville dropped to fifth at the rallies end, thanks to some stage winning times from Tanak’s Puma. The Estonian finishing fourth.

The action in WRC2 also saw emotions run high as Oliver Solberg was given a one-minute time penalty for being over exuberant with some donut routines on the end of day Spectator Stage on Saturday. A regulation change prompted by a similar stunt performed by Ogier the previous year. The Norwegian didn’t give up and set several fast times. At one point tying with his teammate Mikkelsen. However, thanks to Thai penalty, Gus Greensmith was now the class leader. 

He soon had a margin of 22 seconds over his Norwegian counterpart and looked good to breeze home to victory. Then a major scare. The power steering on his Fabia decided to fail on him. Miraculous, was able to nurse the problem and with a mixture of consistent driving and collective thinking, Greensmith claimed a victory in WRC2. He and his Co-driver embracing Solberg and his British Co-driver Elliot Edmondson in a show of true sportsmanship towards their defeated yet incredible drive on their teammates part. Having shown such impressive dominance of a very challenging and demanding rally.

Toksport scored a clean sweep of the podium with Mikkelsen claiming third place. Rossel and Suninen rounding out the top five. McErlean claimed a very commendable seventh place for the Motorsport Ireland team and Adrien Fourmaux passed Joona to take the final class point in 10th. Pajari was able to be classed in the top 15 with Gryazin, competing under Super Rally climbing up into the top 20. Eric Cais, Gregoire Munster and Linnamae all managing to make it back after much trial and tribulation. Including restarts under Super Rally for some.

WRC3 saw victory go to Roope Korhonen with Fontana claiming a victory in Rally4. More dramas beset the Portuguese 2RM and Peugeot Iberica classes. Seeing Manuel Pereira claim victory as the sole surviving 2RM entry and seeing him score second of the two surviving Iberica Cup entrants. Victory going to Spaniard Alonso Bianco.

And so, concludes another incredible and dramatic Rally Portugal which has once again seen a new leader take their place in the WRCs top spot. Rovanpera is now back on top of the standings, but can he keep his grip on it? Find out next time when the WRC heads to its next world tour stop. The hot and dusty tracks of Rally Sardegna on the 1-4th of June. Where man and machine will be tested on one of the most spectacular and demanding rallies of the season.


Log in to comment