Ogier to send the dirt flying in Portugal

Matosinhos (Portugal) (AFP) –


Sebastian Ogier could find leading the standings is a handicap when the World Rally Championship gets its wheels dirty in Portugal this weekend with the season's first race on gravel.

The Frenchman will open the road after taking the championship lead when he won the Croatia Rally on asphalt in his Toyota Yaris two weeks ago.

"Generally in Portugal, the sandy surface on top of the stages can make it quite slippery for the first cars in the morning," team principal Jari-Matti Latvala said on the Toyota web site.

"For Seb, it could be very demanding being the first car on the road as championship leader."

Ogier is hoping for rain to damp down the dirt, although the forecast is largely dry for the weekend.

"We know we will probably have to face tough conditions opening the road, but Portugal is a place where we can have rain at this time of year, and that is always what you hope for," he said

The Frenchman had an eventful final day in Croatia where he was involved in a traffic accident driving to the start.

An amateur video showed him pulling into the right-hand lane and hitting a car that was overtaking.

"Croatia Rally was a real rollercoaster for us and managing to win it in the very last moment and score maximum points after such an eventful and emotionally demanding weekend was something special," he wrote on social media.

Ogier won after team-mate Elfyn Evans lost control on the final corner.

The one blemish for Toyota in Croatia came when Kalle Rovanpera, the early-season leader, crashed five kilometres into the opening stage.

"After Croatia, I think my approach will be a bit more sensible," said the 20-year-old Finn.

Hyundai, which won the manufacturers title last season, was disappointed after Croatia.

"Our aim is to bounce back after a tricky and unrepresentative weekend in Croatia," said Ott Tanak, who won the last time the Portuguese rally was raced in 2019.

The rally is known for huge and enthusiastic crowds especially round the Fafe special stage which ends in a spectacular leap.

While the national Directorate General of Health has acknowledged that the race will "inevitably be followed by a significant number of fans", they asked the organisers to try to limit crowds and ensure social distancing rules are respected.

"Portugal is always special for me because it is so close to Spain," said Spaniard Dani Sordo of Hyundai. "I have always enjoyed an extra boost from the many spectators. It is unlikely to be quite the same this year."

The fans will have a local celebrity to cheer on.

Much-travelled Portuguese football coach Andre Villas-Boas will make his World Rally Championship debut in a Citroen C3 in the third-tier WRC3.

In 2018 he took part in the Dakar Rally, retiring with a back injury.