Strong entry of  75 cars. Includes first event for the five 2009 Pirelli Star Drivers.

Two-time World Champion, Marcus Gronholm returns to take on Loeb in Subaru.

Kick-off event also for Ford’s Pirelli supported  one-make Fiesta Sport Trophy.

The Vodafone Rally de Portugal, fourth round of the 2009  World Rally Championship, starts next Friday. It is based in Vilamoura in the Algarve holiday region in the south of Portugal and the all-gravel stages run through the Algarve and Alentejo regions.

Rally Portugal promises to be the most fascinating event so far this season, being blessed with a strong entry list of 75 crews that includes three world champions, Sebastien Loeb, Petter Solberg and Marcus Gronholm. As well as the WRC cars there will be competitors in the Production World Rally Championship, the Junior World Rally Championship plus the five Pirelli Star Drivers in their Group N Mitsubishi Evos.

Loeb has dominated the season so far, winning all three opening events, but Solbergs podium position in Cyprus in a self-run Citroen has underlined his renewed competitiveness, whilst the return of two-time World Champion Marcus Gronholm in a Subaru has introduced a new ‘wild card’ into the competition. Meanwhile the Ford drivers Hirvonen and Latvala will be out to prove that it is they who represent the biggest threat to Loeb and his Citroen.

Given the time of  year and the southerly location, Pirelli will supply to all the teams with  the hard compound version of their well proven Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyre. Mario Isola, Rally Manager for Pirelli said ‘We are happy to be returning to Portugal, a country with a long tradition in rallying and very enthusiastic crowds. There are no particular problems facing the tyres there, though of course rallying can always be unpredictable and anything can happen!  It will be very interesting for us to see how the Pirelli Star Drivers get on. We have followed their training activities very closely but this will be their first opportunity to guage themselves against the more experienced drivers that compete in similar cars in the Production World Rally Championship’.

All five Pirelli Star Drivers will be present in Portugal, representing their regions. Martin Semerad (aged 18 from Czech Republic) and Jarkko Nikara (aged 23 from Finland) represent Europe, Nicos Thomas (aged 21 from Cyprus) represents Middle East, Jon Willams (aged 26 from South Africa) represents Africa and Mark Tapper (aged 28 from New Zealand) represents Australasia. They have identical Gr.N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X cars prepared by Ralliart Italy and after Portugal will go on to compete in a further five WRC events carefully selected by Pirelli and the FIA – Italy, Greece, Finland, Spain and UK.

Paul Hembery, Director of Motorsport for Pirelli, said ‘This is truly an historic and very positive moment for the WRC.  Pirelli Star Driver is the most significant effort ever to promote fresh young talent in World Rallying and has been an important element of Pirelli’s  relationship with the FIA over the last two years. To see the first five drivers from the scheme finally arrive in a WRC event is very very satisfying and of course we wish them good luck in their endeavours’.