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GP Week : Issue 109
T yre problems were a deciding factor in Portugal, both Citroen and Ford suffering not only by losing time driving with flat tyres, but also from extra dust from rivals who were doing this. Ford still had high hopes of victory until late on Day 2 when Latvala had to stop and change a flat tyre and then Hirvonen also had a broken rear suspension link. This was the first time for many years that punctures have had such a large influence on an event. Initially Ogier was slowed by fellow Citroen driver Petter Solberg then, on another occasion, Loeb was slowed on the same stage by the dust from the punctured tyres of both Latvala and Hirvonen. Portugal represented the first orthodox central European rally of the season and there was a major breath of fresh air when two examples of the BMW Mini Countryman, now officially named the John Cooper Works, cars appeared, this time in Super 2000 specification. Under the new S2000 rules, their engines were identical to that which will later be fitted to the full World Rally Car versions, so when Armindo Araujo was classified at the end of the first day in seventh place, ahead of six full World Rally Cars, the Mini personnel were most encouraged. On the second full day, engine trouble struck Araujo for the second time (he had to change an engine unit after the pre-rally test) and when the car started to run on three cylinders the car was withdrawn. The second Mini driver, Daniel Oliveira, was competing on only his second world rally but continued to gain valuable experience for the team until he went off the road on the final stage when lying 20th The event started with a ceremonial opening stage run on tarmac roads around the Praca do Imperio on the Thursday afternoon, up county in Lisbon. It was a long journey from Algrave where the event was based, but highly valuable for promotional awareness. Hirvonen immediately led but then on account of his championship standing faced the unenviable thought of running first car on the road on the first day’s stages on gravel. In fact the challenge on this day did not prove as daunting as expected – rains in recent weeks reducing the looseness of the surfaces – but the risk of punctures still remained. Just as tactics were being prepared on the final stage of the full Day 1, Ogier was slowed by Petter Solberg’s dust and suddenly the only game to play was for Loeb to slow and make sure that at least Hirvonen ran the second day in front of him. So it was that Latvala ended up leading on the Friday evening, in front of his teammate Hirvonen and Loeb. As for Petter Solberg, he was struggling with three flat tyres on his car, and stopped near the end of the final stage of the day as a ploy to reduce his penalties. Conditions were again deceptive in the stages. There was to be more surface cleaning on the Saturday, meaning bad news for front runners, and on the third stage of the day Ogier passed Latvala to regain the lead – but the Finn’s high hopes all went pear-shaped as Ford had troubles in addition to the tyres. Latvala broke his driveshaft and then Hirvonen a rear link. Suddenly Citroen were well away and untouchable. Ogier was happy, over a half_ minute in the lead, second placed Loeb safe but not so happy. Both Stobart team cars (Henning Solberg and Mads Ostberg) had power steering problems while the independent Stobart driver Matthew Wilson found himself in fourth place overall. This time there was no point in issuing team tactics for the two remaining stages, but one sensed Loeb smelled a championship points meal could be gained on the PowerStage and enjoyed the consolation of the three extra points. Perhaps the lasting memory from Portugal was the strange confusion regarding the tyres. On the final afternoon Michelin, who enjoy a virtual monopoly on tyre supply in the WRC, confirmed that more suitable tyres would be supplied in Jordan, but they were unrepentant about Portugal. They declared: “Speed is the primary factor in the equation when it comes to the durability and the life expectancy of our tyres. On top of that, despite the fact that they are less powerful, the cars equipped with (their ‘Latitude Cross’) tyres were faster this weekend than last year’s cars were on several stages. So there’s good reason to be pleased with their performance and durability.” How many teams share their satisfaction? Latvala broke his driveshaft and then Hirvonen a rear link. 44