The Vodafone Rally de Portugal marks the start of a new generation of competition within the FIA World Rally Championship, with the arrival of the Pirelli Star Driver programme. After a year-long appraisal and selection process, five crews from across the globe will get down to the serious business of competition on the fast and flowing Algarve roads next week.

The Faro-based Vodafone Rally de Portugal is the first of six events the Pirelli Star Drivers will tackle this year. They will all drive identical Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Xs, prepared by Ralliart Italy and liveried to carry the FIA’s EveryRace message (see editors’ note).

The rally ahead – Vodafone Rally de Portugal
The fourth round of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship starts with a super special in the Algarve Stadium, eight kilometres north-west of Faro, on Thursday (2 April) at 16:45 hrs. The mainstay of the day one action gets underway at 09:00 hrs on Friday, with six stages and 136 km of flat-out driving. Day two means another six stages ? including two runs through Almodovar, at 27.18 km the event’s longest test. Sunday’s final loop of five stages is concluded with a re-run of the stadium test at 14:00 hrs, with the podium celebrations following shortly afterwards.

Portugal has a long history within the FIA World Rally Championship, running as one of the founding rounds of the original Manufacturers’ World Rally Championship in 1973, and the country has always maintained a love affair for the sport. The fans in Portugal are among the most fervent anywhere in the world and, while the event has shifted south-east from the stages of Arganil and Fafe, the roads used in the current incarnation of the Rally de Portugal are every bit the challenge of those going before them.

The drivers

Car 61: Nicos Thomas/Stéphane Prévot
Nicos Thomas said: “I can’t wait to get started now. I have been looking forward to Portugal for so long. I did the Cyprus Rally in my own car, which was good for some practice ahead of the first Pirelli drive. But my home round of the World Rally Championship didn’t work out quite so well. I was sick during the rally, which is not good. And on the first day I couldn’t find the right way with the gravel tyres on the asphalt roads. Then, on the second day, we had a problem with the relay going to the fuel pumps, which caused the car to stop. This wasn’t the kind of practice we’d been looking for! I am really happy to say, however, that wherever I am driving in the world this year, we will always be remembering Cyprus, as I am now backed by the government; you will see the Cyprus Tourism logo on my car and my overalls.

“As well as driving in Cyprus, I’ve been working more in the gym and trying to find out some more about Portugal. I never competed there before, but I have been watching some of the films and hearing about what a great country Portugal is for rallying and for the fans. I am so excited about getting there. It could be quite a difficult event for me to go to, given that I have never driven there, but this is where I am sure my co-driver Stéphane [Prévot] will help me ? he has a lot of experience everywhere!”

Car 62: Jon Williams/George Gwynn
Jon Williams said: “After the training and testing we did in Scotland and Italy, my plan had been to stay with my co-driver George Gwynn in Britain. We had this plan to go and do some practicing with pace notes and things like that ? I also wanted to get some driver tuition to help me get used to driving a Group N car. But, the sponsorship I needed to do this didn’t come through, which meant I had to go back home to South Africa. I had to work to try and earn some extra cash.

“Not being in the car or making notes with George is certainly going to make Portugal quite a tough event, but then I’ve had to work hard all the way through my career, so I’m not expecting anything to be easy. Having said that, I’m flying out of South Africa to drive for the FIA and Pirelli team on the Rally de Portugal for free ? that’s an amazing opportunity for me! As for the event itself, I want to push on and set some good times, but it’s going to depend on how I feel in the car. I need to get comfortable and confident early on. I have six chances to show what I’m capable of this year and I don’t intend to waste a single one of them.”

Car 63: Jarkko Nikara/Jarkko Kalliolepo
Jarkko Nikara said: “I have been busy working in the forest before Portugal ? but also I have done some driving as well. We did drive the Lancer Evolution X in Italy for some kilometres, but I knew it was important for me to come home and stay driving. I have my own Lancer Evolution IX here in Finland, so I drove two rallies. I did the second round of the Finnish Championship in Mikkeli. I finished second on that event after a very interesting battle. After that, I did a smaller rally last week, where I was driving the zero car. Both of these have helped me to try and stay sharp for Portugal.

“I need to find the right set-up for the car quickly in Portugal. I noticed when I tested the car in Italy it was quite a different feeling from what I had known. When I get comfortable, then I will start to push. Of course, I want to be fastest of the Pirelli Star Drivers; that is what I want to do all of the time this year. I have never competed in Portugal before, so I don’t know too much about the roads or about the rally, but I like fast stages and technical stages, so I’m sure there will be something to suit me.”

Car 64: Martin Semerád/Bohuslav Ceplecha
Martin Semerád said: “It’s quite funny for me to be coming straight from school one week and going to a round of the World Rally Championship the next. Almost nobody in school knows about what I’m doing in the WRC or the level of competition we are at. It’s so exciting, though. It’s great to be going to work with the new team and all the rest of the Pirelli Star Drivers. I have already done two rallies this year ? Norway and Cyprus ? as preparation for this year. Although those two events weren’t very successful, I have gained a lot of experience which will help me.

“For me, it’s not the most important thing to be the fastest of all of the drivers straight away. Of course, you need to show that you can be fast, but at the same time, you need to show that you have consistency ? and that’s what I have been missing; I need to work on being constant in competition. And, don’t forget this is a programme for all of the season, so I need to be making sure that I am showing an improvement through the year. I don’t know too much about Portugal, I didn’t drive there before, but the most important thing for me is to come to the finish and not do anything stupid. I need to get experience of these rallies.”

Car 65: Mark Tapper/Jeff Judd
Mark Tapper said: “I haven’t stopped since I arrived back in New Zealand from the testing and training we did ? it’s been a fairly hectic schedule to say the least! I landed back in Auckland and was testing with Alister McRae the very next day. He was really helpful and gave me lots of tips to help me out this season. After that, I did a fundraising dinner and auction with more than 200 people ? that took some organising, but it was well worthwhile in the end. And the day after that, I did a Rallysprint in my own Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX, finishing a close second. Like I said, it’s been busy.

“I don’t know too much about the Rally de Portugal or about Portugal as a place. Once I get settled into the 24-hour flight back to Europe, I’ll get my Lonely Planet guide out and find out all about the place. What I do know about are the spectators in Portugal and how passionate they all are about the sport. It seems like a great place and I’m sure it’ll be a really exciting rally. Obviously, coming from the other side of the world can be quite tough from a time zone perspective. In an effort to combat that, I’ve been putting my clock backwards by an hour a day for the last week, which should help. What I want most from the rally is to come away with a straight car and a happy team.”

Q&A with Phil Short, Pirelli Star Driver Supervisor
Q: How important is the Pirelli Star Driver scheme?
A: It’s very important to these young guys. Without the scheme and Pirelli’s great support, they probably wouldn’t be able to get straight into a six-event World Rally Championship programme with a professional team and all of the back-up to run the absolute latest specification Group N car. It’s also important for the sport. We need stepping stones like this one for young drivers with ambition and talent; this is the perfect showcase for them, right in front of the WRC team principals.

Q: You’ve done Portugal as a co-driver before, what’s it like to compete there?
A: When I last did Portugal [with David Llewellin in 1988] the rally was based further north and included the legendary Arganil, one of the toughest stage groups in WRC. The stages in the Algarve are different, they’re smoother, a bit faster, but still quite tricky in places. I’ve studied the video of this year’s stages and although the roads flow quite well at times, there are also lots of tricky places just waiting to catch out the unwary. The surface also looks quite soft in places and may cut up, especially if there has been rain.

Q: What will be the toughest thing for the drivers?
A: Finding the right pace that will bring them through. Their relative lack of experience will count against them at times. They are up against some seriously experienced guys in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. Although the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X is a fantastic car, with great potential, it’s still relatively new at this level, so the drivers and Ralliart Italy may be on a bit of a learning curve on the early events. What we need to remember is that these five drivers arrived in the Pirelli Star Driver programme by quite different routes, from quite different countries, with quite different rally cultures. They all fully deserve to be in this position, but we simply don’t know how they will match up, either to each other, or to the ? very competitive ? PWRC standard.

Q: What are you looking for from this event?
A: I’d like to be able to say at the finish on Sunday: “I counted them all out – and I counted them all back!” So first and foremost, the Pirelli Star Drivers need to try to get the full trip, preferably without SupeRally. They are learning the car and they are all new to this event, so it’s about the experience; more than anything, they need to get the mileage under their belts. You don’t learn anything when you car’s on the back of a trailer! However, I’m sure at some point some of them will also show us their speed – that’s what the scheme is all about, though there are no specific prizes. We just want them to express themselves and their abilities fully to the world of rallying at large.

Q: How well prepared are the drivers going into Portugal?
A: They’ve been through a tough preparation at Edinburgh University with ESP. There were all sorts of physical, physiological and mental tests in quite difficult circumstances, as well as lots of really useful briefings. The heat chamber work was the most demanding, while the nutrition workshop was probably the most enlightening. I think most of them found it a bit of a shock and they all went away knowing the areas they need to work on. After that, we went testing in Tuscany, which gave the guys the opportunity to drive the Evolution X and work with Ralliart Italy for the first time. The test went quite well, with the drivers finding an improved set-up on the second of the two days. We all learned a lot from that and I know the guys are just raring to get in their new cars and drive in Portugal.