WRC 2016: Rally Portugal Preview - Part 1
Welcome back to Europe again, WRC, for your first mainland European event since Monte Carlo, the fifth round of this year's series. This is the second year that the event has returned to the North of Portugal, perceived as the spiritual home of the event. All except 1.77% of the route is the same as 2015, the major change being the street stage in downtown Porto which will be run twice on the Friday evening in daylight. Certain other changes will be evident notably that the WRC and WRC2 teams will be located this year in the grounds of the Porto's Exponor complex, rather than within the Exponor exhibition halls as last year, giving easier viewing for spectators. Exponor is well sited for access and suitability and continues Porto's tradition of running major motorsport events, famous since the days when the Portuguese Formula 1 race was run over the anti clockwise Boavista circuit, about three kilometres from Exponor. The only competition on the Thursday will be the superspecial at the Lousada rallycross course, Friday sees the cars tackle the loops of stages close to the Spanish border around Viana do Castelo, Saturday's stages are due east from Porto are around Amarante near Vila Real, and Sunday sees two stages near Fafe, each traditional stage tackled twice, all except the Porto stages on gravel.
With this event hosting the first rounds this year of the WRC-based Junior WRC series and the Drive DMack Fiesta Trophy adding another 21 crews to the number of competitors, a heathy entry of 80 cars has been received, albeit down on last year's 94 starters. The entry list is impressive with 19 World Rally Cars, of five different makes, all but five WRC cars being eligible for the manufacturers championship. Twenty five cars are eligible for WRC2, all but two being R5 cars with another R5 being one of only nine non championship competitors on the entry list. Now back in Europe till China in just under for months' time, the teams are coordinating their logistical planning in Portugal with the Rally d'Italia in Sardinia three weeks later. Technically the biggest interest in Portugal concerns tyres. Whereas Michelin has nominated their soft compound tyres as their "prime" tyres, alternative suppliers DMack and Pirelli have nominated hard compound tyres as their preferred tyre. There is also interest in the latest activities at DMack, on account of the end of the company's work with their Chinese suppliers, with a new range of tyres being produced in Europe.
This event is widely considered as where the main world championship each year starts to take a meaningful position. Hyundai is beginning to put pressure on Volkswagen, but M-Sport is struggling to deliver representative performance and Citroen, this year not registered for the manufacturers' championship, making one of their occasional appearances. It is in the WRC2 that the entry situation is completely fluid. Leaders are the Fiesta and Fabia R5 cars, with few Peugeots and Citroens, but a pattern as to the driver prospects does not emerge at this time, largely because there are two very different approaches to the championship. Some drivers are basing their programme on long haul events where entry levels are not high, others concentrate on the European events. It is possible that the leading drivers may hardly ever competed against each other by the end of the season. WRC3 is even weirder, as the JWRC calendar embraces events in the WRC3 calendar, so that some WRC3 competitors have concentrated on gaining points on events where the JWRC are not also present.
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