Ice? Done. Snow? Done. Asphalt? Done. So now it’s time to see how the World Rally Championship’s new hybrid Rally1 cars perform on gravel for the first time, in Portugal. And of course, there’s a special tyre to help them deliver their best: the 2022 Pirelli Scorpion.
Rally Portugal, based near the coastal city of Porto, is actually the first of five consecutive events on the WRC’s most common surface: with the championship then moving on to the abrasive gravel stages of Sardinia as well as the wild landscapes of the Safari Rally in Kenya and high-speed forest roads of Estonia and Finland.
As well as testing the reliability and performance of the latest cars and tyres, these events will provide a big challenge for championship leader Kalle Rovanpera. The 21-year-old Toyota driver, who first made his name with Pirelli, has shown the others where to go so far this season, finishing fourth on the Monte Carlo Rally and then sensationally winning in both Sweden and Croatia, making him the sport’s youngest-ever championship leader. Whatever happens in Portugal, he’s still going to be leading the overall standings by Sunday night.
How come? The young Finn is already 29 points up on nearest rival Thierry Neuville, who drives for Hyundai, but maintaining that advantage will be a massive challenge.
Gravel rallies usually provide the WRC with a natural form of success penalty due to ‘roadsweeping’, as the championship leader us required to run first on the road during the first full day of competition on Fridays.
If conditions are dry, this means they are creating a convenient line through the loose gravel for their rivals to follow, handing over a big advantage. This is particularly true in Portugal, where the roads have a hard and rocky base that is covered by soft and sandy gravel, which provides little in the way of grip for those running at the front and also increases the risk of going off. But there’s another reason – or rather two good reasons – why Kalle is unlikely to have it all his way this weekend.
In Portugal, two of the most successful rally drivers in history, Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, make a comeback. The two French legends delivered an epic duel for victory on Rallye Monte-Carlo at the start of the year, with Loeb eventually claiming the top spot.
Their time away gives them more favourable road positions for Portugal, although M-Sport Ford driver Loeb is remarkably still fourth in the standings, with Toyota’s Ogier in eighth. After years of arriving in Portugal as one of the championship leaders, Ogier in particular is looking forward to a great opportunity to go for a record-breaking sixth win in the country, with a start position that could work to his advantage.
It's going to be a battle of youth versus experience – so who will succeed? One thing they all have in common is the Pirelli tyres, which are the same for everyone. It’s how you use them that makes the difference.
The latest version of the renowned Pirelli Scorpion tyre will be an essential element of the rally win, as it has been specially designed to bite through surface gravel, dispersing any dirt or loose stones, in order to hunt for grip on the hard base underneath. Thanks to the compound and tread pattern, it’s incredible just how much traction a driver can find even on completely loose surfaces these days. On gravel rallies, the cars have to slide – but the Scorpion still gives the driver accurate control, so that he can feel precisely when the grip is about to run out. This ability to find the very limit of adhesion is what makes the Scorpion unique, as well as its mastery of a wide variety of temperatures and road conditions. Rallying is one of Pirelli’s most vital research and development tools in motorsport, as it uses real cars on real roads. And it doesn’t get much more real than the extreme conditions that drivers will find in Portugal.
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