PORTUGAL - M-Sport Ford World Rally Team is preparing for a full-scale attack on the gravel roads of Rally de Portugal this week as 2022 Rallye Monte Carlo winner and nine-time world champion, Sebastien Loeb, returns to complete a historic line-up of five Ford Puma Hybrid Rally1 cars.
The highly anticipated event marks the 50th anniversary celebrations of the FIA World Rally Championship; Rally de Portugal featured in the championship’s inaugural season and this year’s event will celebrate half a century of history, with historic cars and figures making appearances over the course of the weekend.
In tandem with the anniversary celebrations in Porto, M-Sport Ford continues to add to the history books with the first five-car entry in WRC’s new hybrid Rally1 era.
Despite Portugal’s reputation for being particularly rough and physically demanding for both crews and cars alike, the M-Sport team has delivered strong performances on the event over the years with an outright event victory in 2017 and a double podium the following year.
Loeb’s return to the team brings more Rally de Portugal experience with him, including two overall victories and a further two podium finishes since his first outing on the event in 2007. The Frenchman will be joined by co-driver Isabelle Galmiche, who guided Loeb to a record-setting 80th victory on Rallye Monte-Carlo in January.
The event hosts some of rallying’s most famous stages, including the iconic Lousada super special stage on Friday and Sunday’s Fafe power stage, which features one of WRC’s most iconic jumps within the 11km final stage.
The FIA Junior WRC Championship also heads into its third round in Portugal, where seven of M-Sport Poland’s entry-level Ford Fiesta Rally3 cars go head-to-head again in one of the feeder category’s closest seasons yet.
Sebastien Loeb, said:
“The first feeling in the Puma on gravel at our test was quite good, I was quite happy with the feeling I had as we worked on the suspension and the differential setups. Only one day of testing isn’t a lot when it’s the first time you are driving a car on gravel, but at the end I was happy with the feeling I had.
“My goal will be to find a rhythm as quickly as possible, hopefully I will be in a good rhythm to fight at the front, if I could be not far from the podium that would be a good performance. The challenges of Rally de Portugal for me will be that I am fourth on the road, road cleaning is always a challenge in this kind of rally if it is dry. I don’t really know what to expect there so we need to do a good first day, and for the rest we will see where we are.”
Craig Breen, said:
“I am looking forward to Portugal, it’s a rally that I haven’t done for several years, I think it was 2018 the last time I did it. After the first three rallies, they were all a bit unique in their own way, so looking forward to seeing what the pace of the Puma will be in Portugal.
“We had a good test, I felt good in the car and we got some good work done. I am looking forward to discovering the rally, there are a lot of new stages and some changes since the last time I was there, so it will be interesting. I’d like to have a bit more speed than what we showed in Croatia, so we’ll be working as hard as we can to make that possible.”
Gus Greensmith, said:
“I am really looking forward to Portugal, it is without doubt my favourite rally and the first rally I did overseas. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of this rally, it will be my seventh time doing the rally, so I’ve got lots of experience here.
“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time with the car, co-driver and everything. There’s no pressure this weekend as I’m not scoring any manufacturer points so I’m just here to enjoy myself. Usually when I enjoy myself, things go well, so that’s the plan.”
Adrien Fourmaux, said:
“This will be my second time in Portugal, and I had a good feeling last year with the WRC car, so I am looking forward to getting out in the Puma and see how it goes. It is a really nice event, the spectators are great and it’s a fantastic atmosphere.
“We are looking forward to all the gravel events coming up, there are quite a few ahead of us now, so we’re really excited to get going in Portugal and hoping for a good result for the team.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet, said:
“Portugal has always been my favourite rally in the past, it’s where I have had some of my best results. It was my first ever WRC event, when I was only 18, so I’m looking forward to it and hope it will be a strong second event for us this season.
“We were happy with our pace in Croatia, and we’re hoping that with the same pace, and no punctures, it will go well and we can hope for a good result.”
Richard Millener, Team Principal, said:
“Portugal is always a tough rally and with it being our first proper gravel rally with the new car, it will likely be a big challenge. With a five-car line-up the team has been working under exceptional circumstances since Croatia and it’s a proud moment for us all to be the first manufacturer to field five Hybrid Rally1 cars on a single event.
“From our testing and development programme last year and the feedback from our pre-event test, I think the Puma Hybrid will perform well on gravel as our drivers are feeling comfortable and confident in the car.
“One major point of enthusiasm within the team is the return of Seb and Isabelle to the team after leading us to victory on the Monte at the start of the year. It’s strange to think we have only had two outings since then, but we are really excited to have them back for the first gravel event of the season. It is especially significant to have such an icon of the sport with us on the same weekend that we are celebrating 50 years of WRC; the timing is just perfect.”