Rally paradise

Islands in the ocean
Where Europe and America meet there are…the Azores. These are an archipelago of untrammelled islands stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic, with Portugal their nearest neighbour, two and a half hours flying time further east. Not many people go there, unless they’re on one of the many cruise ships that slink in and out of the harbour of the biggest island, Sao Miguel, increasing the average age of the population by at least 20 years each time they disgorge their human cargo.
The weather in the mid-Atlantic is as predictable as a chimpanzee with a hand grenade: there can be rain, bright sunshine, biting winds and fog in the space of 10 minutes. The climate is essentially equatorial, which is why one of the great Azorean exports is the pineapple.
This week, the Azores gives the world some rallying as well. A strange place to hold a rally you may think, but following the logic that the best place to practise the drums is a deserted basement, there is actually some sense in it.
The Azores Airlines Rally forms the latest round of the European Rally Championship, and it’s probably the sport’s biggest hidden gem. Everywhere you look there is sea, sky, and enormous clouds. Sometimes it rains, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never completely dry as there’s always this fine salt-water spray in the air – as if you’re standing on the deck of a large ship. Which in some respects, you constantly are. No wonder that any road car more than 10 years old tends to be covered in rust.

Codfish and volcanoes
Don’t contemplate going there unless you like fish (there are apparently more than 500 different recipes for bacalhao or codfish alone) and cheese (which comes with everything, including the bacalhao).
But if you’re into desolate, unspoilt and rugged landscapes – imagine a tropical Scotland, or Lord of the Rings – then this is the place. The drivers love it too: just ask Kajetan Kajetanowicz, Pirelli’s reigning European Rally champion, who is car number one in a Ford Fiesta R5.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere like this anywhere in the world,” said the Polish driver, who is once more leading the championship standings with Pirelli this year. “The landscapes just take your breath away. I love rallying but this takes the pleasure of driving to a new level. It’s like a fantastic playground for a rally car.”
So there we have it: like the lost city of Atlantis, the best-kept secret in rallying lies in the middle of the ocean.
The downside is that this makes it a somewhat tricky event to get to and from. If you’re going by boat, it takes three days to get to Lisbon. If you fly, it still takes the thick end of three hours. Looking on the bright side though, it only takes an hour or two more to get to America.
It’s all worth it for the unique Sete Cidades stage: the only stage in the world (to our knowledge, at least) to run along the rim of a volcano. It’s vertiginously breath-taking – but whatever you do, don’t look down.

The best rally stage in the world?
Surrounded by high earth banks, this truly epic 25-kilometre stage is run twice, with the drivers seemingly balancing their cars on a knife-edge. Below them are 70 cubic kilometres of crater, which have now become a lake.
As a spectacle, nothing else on earth comes close, which is why thousands of enthusiastic fans flock to the tiny island every year. There are some very strong candidates for the title of best rally stage in the world – Arganil in Portugal, Ouninpohja in Finland, or El Condor in Argentina, for example – but Sete Cidades might just be the most spectacular of them all.

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