Pulsating WRC2 battle in prospect in Portugal

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There is a fair chance that the overall tussle for supremacy between the Toyota Gazoo Racing, M-Sport Ford and Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Teams will be overshadowed by the prospect of a pulsating contest between several former WRC stars and new kids on the block in the WRC2 category at this weekend’s 54th Vodafone Rally of Portugal.

Andreas Mikkelsen’s career may have taken a step backwards in the last couple of seasons, but the Norwegian is taking advantage of the opportunity to drive a Toksport WRT Škoda Fabia Evo with open arms. He has been the dominant force at this early stage of the WRC2 season and holds a 35-point advantage over Bolivia’s Marco Bulacia in the points’ standings.

Mikkelsen is the only driver to have taken part in the opening Monte-Carlo, Arctic and Croatian rounds of the series and has already confirmed that he will tackle Sardinia and Kenya, but a recent positive test for Covid-19 means he misses out on a chance to extend his series lead this weekend. Andreas has already claimed victory in Monte-Carlo and maximum Power Stage bonus points on the opening three rounds.

Seven events are eligible for points scoring and Mikkelsen knows full well that his closest challengers will take full advantage of his Portuguese absence to stake a claim for the prestigious title. Like the Norwegian, Esapekka Lappi and Mads Østberg have seen their careers take a similar step back into WRC2 after success at the sport’s highest level: Østberg won the Rally of Portugal outright in 2012 - when it was based out of the Algarve - and Lappi triumphed in his native Finland in 2017.

Both the Finn and the Norwegian have won a WRC2 round apiece this year in Finland and Croatia and currently hold third and fourth in the standings. Bolt on the presence of the talented Frenchman Eric Camilli, flying Finn Teemu Suninen and the rapid Nikolay Gryazin and we have the solid foundations for an explosive battle for WRC2 supremacy.

Portugal has attracted 11 crews in this category, with the likes of Czech veteran Martin Prokop returning from cross-country rallying exploits and the talented young Hyundai Motorsport duo of Oliver Solberg and Ole-Christian Veiby also hoping to be competitive at the sharp end of the leader board.

Solberg makes his first WRC2 start of the year and is focusing on winning the title. He has already impressed with his performance in a World Rally Car at the Arctic Rally this season. Veiby gained a little pre-match practice with an outing at the recent Rali Terras d’Aboboreira.

Rossel leads the way in WRC3

Frenchman Yohan Rossel arrives in Matosinhos with a two-point advantage over fellow countryman Nicolas Ciamin in the FIA WRC3 Championship. Both drive Citroën C3s and face 23 rivals in what has become a formidable sub-section of the FIA World Rally Championship.

The likes of Croatia winner Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Škoda Fabia) and Estonian Egon Kaur (Volkswagen Polo) will be hoping to close the gap on the C3s.

Portuguese drivers have an excellent opportunity to shine on home gravel and 11 national teams are entered in WRC3. Leading the local challenge is 2009 and 2010 PWRC winner Armindo Araújo at the wheel of a Škoda Fabia Evo. The 43-year-old won the Rally of Portugal on three occasions (2003, 2004 and 2006) when it was not a counting round of the WRC.

Also representing the host nation at the head of the WRC3 field are Bruno Magalhães (Hyundai NG i20), Ricardo Teodósio (Škoda), José Pedro Fontes (Citroën), Pedro Meireles (Volkswagen) and Bernardo Sousa (Škoda). Potential pace-setters running further down the field include Chile’s Alberto Heller and Spaniard Jan Solans.

Former Chelsea, Tottenham, Porto and Marseille football manager André Villas-Boas has returned to active competition after fully recovering from a back injury he sustained competing in the 2018 Dakar Rally in Peru. The Porto native will take part in his home WRC event for the first time in a Citroën C3 after finishing 10th in the local Rali Viera do Minho this year.

Armstrong on top as Junior WRC celebrates 20 years

The FIA Junior WRC celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Portugal was included in the series from 2007 and is sure to offer a daunting challenge to the latest crop of up-and-coming drivers. Great Britain’s Jon Armstrong was triumphant on the opening round in Croatia and brings a nine-point lead to Portugal before the five-round series moves on to Estonia, Belgium and a conclusion in Spain.

The M-Sport Poland Ford Fiesta driver faces seven rivals over 20 Portuguese special stages, with Latvia’s Martins Sesks his closest challenger after round one. The top six in the points’ standings are all present this weekend.

Slovak Martin Koči led for half of the inaugural Croatian WRC event, before a puncture dropped him back to fourth place, but the 28-year-old is embarking upon his fifth season in the Junior WRC since 2012 and hopes to be challenging for the win on Sunday.

2021 WRC2 Championship – positions after round 3:

1. Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)                              68pts

2. Marco Bulacia (BOL)                                      33pts

3. Esapekka Lappi (FIN)                                    29pts

4. Mads Østberg (NOR)                                     27pts

5. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)                                 25pts

6. Teemu Suninen (FIN)                                     22pts

7. Enrico Brazzoli (ITA)                                      21pts

8. Eric Camilli (FRA)                                          17pts

8. Nikolay Gryazin (RUS)                                   17pts

8. Sean Johnston USA)                                      17pts, etc

2021 WRC3 Championship – positions after round 3:

1. Yohan Rossel (FRA)                                      48pts

2. Nicolas Ciamin (FRA)                                    46pts

3. Teemu Asunmaa (FIN)                                   28pts

3. Kajetan Kajetanowicz (POL)                          28pts

5. Egon Kaur (EST)                                            23pts

6. Yoann Bonato (FRA)                                      22pts

7. Emil Lindholm (FIN)                                        20pts

8. Mikko Heikkilä (FIN)                                        15pts, etc

2021 Junior WRC Championship – positions after round 1:

1. Jon Armstrong (GBR)                                                27pts

2. Martins Sesks (LVA)                                       18pts

3. Sami Pajari (FIN)                                            17pts

4. Lauri Joona (FIN)                                            16pts

5. Martin Koči (CZE)                                           15pts

6. William Creighton (IRL)                                  10pts, etc