Rally Portugal is one of the classic gravel rallies of the WRC calendar. For this year it has dusted off some classic stage material not used in decades.
The Portuguese WRC event is based in the city of Matosinhos, near Porto on the North-West Atlantic coast of the country. However, the ceremonial start is in the city of Coimbra, deeper South-East into the country. The Friday stages will also be run around that area, whereas the Saturday and Sunday stages are located North-East from Porto.
Decades ago, Rally Portugal used to start from the capital of the country, Lisboa. It was often a mixed-surface rally with tarmac stages on the first leg leading to Porto. After driving around the Northern gravel stages the route returned to Lisboa through the Coimbra area. It was also common to have mixed surface stages or single tarmac stages in the middle of a gravel loop.
In 1995 Rally Portugal became an all-gravel rally, but it was dropped off the WRC calendar seven years later. Once it returned in 2007 the event was relocated to Algarve, to the South coast of the country, having nothing in common with the old Rally Portugal routes. Then in 2015 the rally returned to the classic stages of Porto and the route up there hasn’t changed much until this year.
Rally Portugal is a de facto gravel rally with stages that are sometimes technical and sometimes fast, sometimes rough and sometimes smooth but rarely in the extremes. The dusty roads can get soft and rutted with some stones to watch for, especially on the second passes. There are also numerous short tarmac sections on almost all of the stages, usually at the start.
One considerable factor about Rally Portugal is that the wide forest fires of 2017 destroyed most of the trees around the stages. Driving in an area naked of trees improves visibility but also makes it more difficult to estimate road lines behind crests. Old stages also look now different to how they were before the summer of 2017.
There is no Thursday evening super special because the start is in Coimbra, far from the service park. The super specials are driven instead at the end of Friday and Saturday.
However, the shakedown is again driven at Paredes. The initial acceleration is on tarmac, but immediately the surface switches onto quite soft gravel. At first it’s fast but tight between fences, then a bit wider with banks on both sides. Long corners are tied together with almost straight fast sections. The middle of the stage is quite technical before switching onto tarmac for a junction turn.
After that the route concludes on the rallycross track of Baltar which hosted a super special in the 1999 Rally Portugal. The first hairpin is on tarmac, the rest on gravel. It’s a good attraction for the spectators to see a jump and some wide slides.
Curiously, this mix of surfaces on the shakedown is a quite good representation of the rally. Although, the fast and flowing corners or narrower roads of some stages are not present.
In the past there has been a lot of action on Rally Portugal Fridays, such as the double-fire of Ott Tänak and Hayden Paddon in 2016 or the rolls of Stephane Lefebvre and Jari-Matti Latvala the year after. Last year it was even more eventful with Sebastien Ogier and Hayden Paddon going off the road, Ott Tänak and Jari-Matti Latvala breaking their cars on stones, Kris Meeke dragging a double puncture and Andreas Mikkelsen stopping with mechanical failure.
However, these eventful stages are now dropped completely from the route. This year Friday takes the rally South-East of Porto into the Coimbra area which hasn’t hosted WRC stages in 20 years. However, back then and in the decades before those stages were a staple part of the route.
Because the stages are run far from the service park there is no midday service, only a remote tyre change. It’s still worth considering that the six stages total in at only 91 kilometres, not much more than the 80 km normally allowed between two services.
These new Friday stages can be expected to be a bit slower and more technical than on the other days. Also, they all have their initial acceleration on tarmac.
Lousã opens the rally with a medium wide but rough and coarsely gravely road. There’s a couple of hairpin junctions but nothing very technical otherwise. After 2 km it gets narrower and then smoother. A junction turn at 7.9 km begins a narrow and steep descend through numerous hairpins. A spectator recce video can be seen here.
Góis has been often used for testing by WRC teams in the latest years. The stage is mostly fast and flowing with a good surface, situated in the hills. Towards the end the surface is a bit coarsser. There are also a couple of tighter corners and technical places here and there but mostly this seems like the fastest stage of the day. Here you can see how the stage looks.
Arganil is a classic from the past decades, but for this year the route has been revised. At 1.5 km the route deviates from the old Arganil stage into a narrow and rough mountain road which is also quite technical. At 9.5 km it joins the old Arganil becoming again wider, smoother and faster.
The following onboard video from 2010 shows the small mountain road from 1:38 to to 7:18. Also the faster ending of the stage can be seen from 8:22 onwards.
Arganil has a legendary sound to its title. It was often the longest stage of the rally with lengths of 40-50 kilometres. This is also where Walter Röhrl gained a massive lead in 1980 driving in thick fog, trusting his pace notes and memory blindly.
After two rounds of these stages the day continues with a 220 km liaison to the evening super special of Lousada. It is one of the longest-living twin car tracks, having featured in the rally as early as 1991.
This stage is situated on a rallycross track and is split quite evenly between tarmac and gravel. For the most part the track is wide, encouraging sideways action, making it a good show for the spectators without many artificial elements. It’s one of the best super specials of the season.
Similarly to Argentina’s Parque Tematico, after you have switched sides and completed both tracks, you do them both again. This means four laps in total, making up a length of 3.36 km. Longer running distance also increases the competitive aspect with more chances to make a difference.
All of the Saturday stages North-West of Porto have remained from last year with changes on only one of them. Just like in Corsica, Saturday holds over half of the competitive length of Rally Portugal. The day will offer lots of rhythm and surface changes, including several kilometres worth of tarmac sections.
Vieira do Minho has 3.9 km of new in the beginning. Upon joining last year’s route the road is quite wide but quite rough, somewhat technical and moderately fast. Many corners have to be lined blind over a crest and at times big rocks are very close to the road. A very fast section begins at 8 km, including about 300 metres of tarmac. After that technical and fast sections alternate until the end with a spectator-friendly jump on the way at 15.2 km.
Cabeceiras de Basto starts quite wide and quite fast. There are some slower corners but nothing technical until a tricky place at 3.5 km where the road also gets narrower. About a kilometre later the road dives into the forest and becomes very technical. At 7.5 km there is a sudden 6th gear burst. At the same time the road becomes wider with a concrete ditch, a rare equipment for a gravel road! The stage becomes altogether faster but remains technical.
A hairpin at 11 km takes the route onto a narrower and rougher road with stones to be watched. Then at 14.3 km a very fast section appears. This road is now more coarsely gravely with lots of small stones and again concrete ditches. The final 3.4 km are driven on a relatively rough and narrow but still quite fast road.
In 2017 Elfyn Evans went off the road just after the hairpin but suffered only a puncture. The following year Mads Østberg spun out of the road, being surprised by rainy conditions.
Amarante is the longest stage of the rally at 37 km of length and also the longest gravel stage of the whole season so far. It’s easy to nominate it as the most challenging stage of the rally with various surface and rhythm changes. In the past decades it was known also as Fridao.
The stage begins medium-wide with some technical corners but the challenge is that the road is stuck between high banks and trees close to the road. At 7.2 km the road becomes a bit rougher with some faster passages and the obstacles now gone from the sides of the road. At 10.8 km a tarmac stretch appears, turning soon into cobblestones with tight bends.
The stage returns onto soft sandy gravel at 11.7 km, being quite narrow and highly technical. A hairpin junction at 13.4 km makes the road a bit faster for a while but soon tricky corners appear again, including a hairpin with a bridge crossing a river at 17.2 km. A smooth and quite wide tarmac section follows at 18.6 km stretching for 2 km, resembling rally Catalunya.
A spectacular hairpin junction turns the stage back onto gravel, similar to that in the beginning of the stage, ascending onto the hills. A worn tarmac section for 1.5 km appears at 26.7 km. The following gravel forest road is very rough and quite tricky, although not that technical. A narrow dry river crossing follows at 30.5 km. Faster passages turn again into technical at 1km before the end, with one of the smallest sections of the whole rally.
In addition to being the longest stage of the rally, it seems to gather a lot of drama. Last year we saw a horrific crash from Kris Meeke rolling into the trees, eventually leading into being axed from the team.
The year before Esapekka Lappi was driving his debut WRC rally on the Toyota Yaris and was surprised by the grip – or the lack of it – on the tarmac section, damaging the rear of the car. The same year Ott Tänak postponed his debut win by hitting a bank and damaging the rear suspension on one of the narrow sections.
Saturday was supposed to conclude with a street stage in Gaia close to Porto, but the latest information is that it’s being cancelled due to a decision from the city. It’s a shame, since it would have been nice for a street stage with lots of natural corners, crests or even jumps – and only one donut!
The Sunday stages are driven in the same area as the Saturday stages – North-East of Porto. A common thing for all the Sunday stages is that they all have their initial acceleration on tarmac, but switch quickly onto gravel. They are relatively less technical to the previous days’ stages. They are also unchanged from last year.
Montim starts with a soft but hyper fast section before making the drivers negotiate through a twisty section almost resembling a rallycross track. Similar alternating between fast and technical sections continues until a crossing of a tarmac road at 7.11 km. The rest of the stage is then driven in a forest which is a bit more narrow and technical, although not slow either.
Last year a stone broke Dani Sordo’s windscreen here, possibly affecting his loss of fight for a podium position.
Fafe is one of the stages that are capable of bearing the adjective iconic. It’s one of the stages that every rally fan recognizes. Whether it’s the jump or the double tarmac junction, this is a part of the most famous rallying footages for decades back.
The first forest road of Fafe is quite fast but angular with banks at the sides of the road. We remember this section from 2017 when Andreas Mikkelsen rolled his Skoda Fabia R5 and lost the WRC2 win on the last stage.
A short bit of tarmac appears at 4.4 km before turning onto another gravel road, similar to the first one but faster. A narrow part with a jump comes at 7.5 km. The following section descends through some more technical corners onto another tarmac part – the infamous double junction of Fafe.
The third gravel road is even more technical. Only a short 6th gear acceleration precedes the classic Fafe jump, which concludes the stage. Today the spectators are safely away from the road unlike in the 80’s when the road was practically blocked by people until the car was airborne. This video from 2017 shows how to do the jump and how not to do it.
With numerous fast sections, Fafe will most likely be the fastest stage of this year’s Rally Portugal. Last year its winning average speed was 102.3 km/h clocked in by the power stage winner Esapekka Lappi.
Luilhas is driven only once in the middle of the day. It consists mostly of fast and medium wide gravel roads. A couple of detours into smaller roads turn down the pace with some hairpins on the way. Meanwhile, the very ending has a nice flow of long bends in a medium fast place.
Kris Meeke and Hayden Paddon both span on this stage in 2017, although neither had anything to fight for anymore at that point.
Road conditions and starting order
Portugal has a definite cleaning effect, but it’s not the worst of the season. We remember Sebastien Ogier winning the rally in 2017 starting first on the road. Dust could also be an issue for later starters, but it’s also not uncommon to have rainy conditions in Rally Portugal.
Last year the roads were also being graded just before the rally. The stages became soft and sandy with big ruts developing already on the first runs, resulting in slower split times for the later cars in some sections.
Here we have a live broadcast from Fafe – Laimeirinha of the 2000 event. That year the stage started a bit earlier, but everything broadcast here is included on the Fafe stage this year. I have to say the double junction and the jump looked every bit as epic back then as they do today.
UPDATED 15.5. Added new video and description for Gòis.
UPDATED 16.5. Updated the description of the shakedown.