With a distinguished entry list and its traditional flair and passion, this year’s Vodafone Rallye de Portugal looks to be an absolute classic.
This year’s Vodafone Rallye de Portugal – the third round of the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship and taking place from 24-27 March – will see several important milestones for the series. It marks the debut for the new crop of World Rally Cars on mainland European gravel and also, the debut for the new Mini rally car.
At a time when the international economic situation could influence entries to the event, the Automóvel Club de Portugal (ACP) is delighted that the number of entries has grown since last year, a clear demonstration that the event is increasingly one of the most significant in the WRC. In fact, the ACP received no less than 75 applications for entries, the overwhelming majority from foreign crews. This clearly demonstrates the importance of the event, both in sporting terms and when it comes to promoting tourism in Portugal.
The 44th edition of the Vodafone Rally of Portugal is part of the new WRC, with technical regulations leading to new cars that will certainly be another major attraction for the event. No fewer than 15 new-generation World Rally Cars are entered - 10 Ford Fiestas and Citroen 5 DS3s - while in the PWRC, there are a further 18 cars registered. Notable among these will be reigning PWRC champion Armindo Araújo and the Portuguese national champion, Ricardo Moura, as a guest driver.
Perhaps even more noteworthy is the debut of the brand-new Mini rally car, albeit in Super2000 guise in Portugal, ahead of the World Rally Car launch in Sardinia later this year. Araujo will be at the wheel of the Mini S2000 for the first time in Portugal and one of the key highlights will be the fight for national honours, aided by the fact that the event does not count towards this year’s Portuguese championship.
In this context, the reigning national champion, Bernardo Sousa, cannot be ignored, as he is the only Portuguese driver to compete in a WRCar (Ford Fiesta) while Bruno Magalhães returns to competition after a year's absence, at the wheel of his familiar Peugeot 207 S2000.
The debut of the FIA WRC Academy, a series that brings together 18 young drivers in identical cars, is another addition to the 2011 Vodafone Rally of Portugal.
Rejoining the WRC in 2005, Vodafone Rallye de Portugal’s format, route and, in particular, quality and spectacular nature of the stages, quickly gained an appreciation from the drivers and teams and helped to establish the event as a reference in the series.
The rally has been evolving continuously since then, to improve the competitiveness of the route and in particular, the final stage, to ensure the result is not decided until the very last test. This strategy has clearly paid off, with the top crews separated by just seconds as they approached the final superspecial stage in the Algarve Stadium last year.
The stages of the final leg of Vodafone Rally de Portugal 2009 totalled approximately 80 km, a figure that rose to nearly 90 km last year. Continuing this philosophy, the final day of the 2011 rally will consist of nearly 105 km of special stages, including two runs through the 31.04 km Santana da Serra test.
But the importance of this element of the event is further enhanced by the ‘Power Stage’ concept, introduced to the WRC this year. Each rally in the WRC has a stage, the last, which offers bonus points in addition to those gained for the overall classification. The ‘Power Stage’ is a fantastic promotional opportunity for the host nation, the region, teams and sponsors, given the benefit of a live, global television broadcast. Vodafone Rallye de Portugal Clerk of the Course Pedro Almeida explains: "When our event was approved by the FIA and included in the WRC, the concept of 'Power Stage' was a long way off. Later, when we discussed the matter with the relevant parties, it became clear that there was no requirement for the ‘Power Stage’ to be particularly different in nature. For example, it can be a long stage, such as ours, or it could be a superspecial. The main requirement is the provision of live television coverage and we will adopt this for the final portion of the last stage, Santana da Serra. "
As already announced, the opening superspecial stage will be in Lisbon, against the stunning backdrop of the Praça do Império, and is another innovation for the 2011 edition, marking the return of the WRC to the capital 37 years after the last visit.
With this innovation, the ACP predicts further gains in terms of promoting the image of Portugal as a tourist destination. It combines the traditional setting of the Algarve and Alentejo with the historical and cultural city of Lisbon, notably the Jeronimos Monastery and the Centro Cultural de Belém.
Moreover, this meets the trends anticipated for modern World Championship events. While safety requirements led organizers to hold rallies in areas often remote from major population centres in the past, it is now desirable to give the public much greater interaction with the event than in recent years.
Looking at the event program, there will be a compact reconnaissance, lasting only one and a half days instead of two, on Tuesday and Wednesday morning (22 and 23 March), while shakedown is planned for Wednesday afternoon, starting at 14h30.
The next day, Thursday, March 24, will be reserved for the superspecial stage activities in Lisbon, which includes the recce of the stage in electric vehicles, an autograph session with the top drivers, a drivers’ parade in historic vehicles and the presence of classic cars on the first stage.
On Friday, March 25, Vodafone Rally de Portugal returns to its traditional itinerary based at the Algarve Stadium, with six stages, arranged as a double run through three different tests: Santa Clara (22.99 km), Ourique (20.27 km) and Felizes (21.31 km).
On Saturday, March 26, the second leg also comprises three tests run twice: Almodovar, with a length of 26.23 km and broadcast live on RTP for both runs, Vascão (25.26 km) and Loulé (22.56 km).
On Sunday, March 27, two more tests are run twice: Silves (21.39 km) and Santana da Serra (31.04 km), the latter broadcast live by RTP in Portugal for both runs, as well as by championship promoter NorthOne Sport globally, as the ‘Power Stage’.
In total, there are more than 385 km of stages, with an average stage distance of almost 24Km, an excellent achievement. The stages are run on high quality gravel roads in the counties of Almodovar, Loulé and Silves and Ourique, whose municipalities partner the event, clearly recognizing the positive impact that the Rally has on the local economy.
After the 2010 Rally of Portugal Revival event, which included the Classic Rally, this year the rally will feature the ‘Open’ rally championship, allowing Portuguese competitors to compete on the Leg 2 stages between the two passes of the WRC competitors. This initiative by the ACP has already had an excellent response, with no fewer than 30 drivers entered, guaranteeing an additional spectacle for the spectators in those stages.
In summary, this year’s Vodafone Rallye de Portugal will take every element that has made the event so successful and add to it, to create what the organisers hope will be a flagship event for the series.
The event is organized by Automóvel Club de Portugal, with the support of Vodafone Portugal, Turismo de Portugal, BP Ultimate, Hertz, Essilor, Sagres Zero, Delta Cafés, Fonte Viva, Instituto Geográfico do Exército, Konica Minolta, City Halls of Lisbon, Almodôvar, Faro, Loulé, Ourique and Silves, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Instituto de Gestão do Património Arquitectónico e Arqueológico. Antena 3 and A Bola are the media partners.
More information is available at www.rallydeportugal.pt