For a split second there is an eerie silence. The ferocious exhaust note fades into the distance and the spatters of anti-lag drown out. In the click of a finger, daylight becomes a soupy haze as a barrage of stones and dirt rains down.
The idyllic landscape, here perched amongst trees, is quickly hidden. As the rally machines scramble for grip on the arid sandy surface, everything in their wake is in the firing line. A relentless bombardment of dust – that’s my lasting memory of Rally Portugal.
Like a wave, the cloud would move and stalk all those in its path, shifting almost from side to side before eventually engulfing everything before it. Cameras, clothes, skin, leaves.
But the misery of that sustained dusting does not entirely represent my time chasing the world’s foremost rally series for a weekend. It was so much more than that. This is my log of a pretty long and exhausting weekend chasing the fourth round of the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship.
In the rally world, time is precious. Schedules are the bible of this sport, and everything runs to an exacting series of time points and markers. Photographing any rally event is a case of having to make a pretty rigid plan, be it well in advance for most people, or entirely at the last minute, like I prefer to do.
I arrived in Portugal late on Wednesday night, ahead of what was going to be a very busy Thursday morning. I needed to be up and ready at 6:30am in order to pick up my hire car at 7:00, sign on for media accreditation at 8:00, and make it out to the event shakedown which started at 9:00.
Personally, this was a very special morning as I was picking up an official WRC media bib for the very first time. I’m putting together a separate behind-the-scenes story on my WRC Portugal adventure, but I will say now that it was a real buzz to have my application approved, so a massive thanks goes to all of you who have read and supported my work to date.
Sign-on completed and passes received, it was time to head 40 minutes east of Porto to Kartodromo de Baltar, the dramatic final section of the shakedown stage. This would be my first chance to experience in person the WRC’s new generation hybrid-boosted ‘Rally1′ cars.
As each car came into view at the circuit-based arena, it was welcomed by a massive cheer from the sizeable crowd of spectators. The first thing that struck me was the incredible noise of these new top-tier cars, now with as much as 540hp available when hybrid boost is used.
Dipping into the tight and twisty corners, every drag of a handbrake or excessive flick of the wheel had the fans in raptures. It was a theme that played out all weekend; the Portuguese spectators are incredibly devoted to rallying and they came out in large numbers to cheer on the world’s finest drivers.
As the shakedown stage finished for the WRC works teams and opened up to the WRC2 and WRC3 category drivers, I had a chance to get up close to the crews as they arrived at the stop line.
Enough seen, it was back into the car and time for a quick stop into the service park for a look around. I also managed to drop by the FIA’s pre-rally press conference for a few moments.
2022 is a significant year for the World Rally Championship, as it marks its 50th anniversary. To celebrate, the organisers of Rally Portugal invited a string of historic rally cars along.
While some acted as incredible ornaments within the heart of the service park, others were wheeled out to entertain the fans on some of the super special stages over the weekend.
It was the opening super special, around the streets of Coimbra, that the timed action for the weekend kicked off. Situated about 90 minutes south of Porto, the incredibly beautiful and historic town was absolutely crammed full of fans, all keen to grab a glimpse of the WRC as it blasted through their streets.
While these stages do little for rallying purists, it was an opportunity for drivers and teams to put on a show for the hordes of locals who likely wouldn’t be trekking up mountains all weekend to see the action. Every vantage point was at a premium, especially around the roundabouts which were the showpiece sections.
Before the stage kicked off, I managed to grab a few minutes in parc ferme with two of the newest breed of WRC machinery. The Hyundai i20N and Toyota GR Yaris are brand-new, purpose-built Rally1 machines, and are totally different than anything that has ever graced a special stage before. There should have also been five Rally1 Ford Pumas, but they were still in transport to Coimbra at the time these photos were taken.
While the headlines associated with Rally1 cars revolve around their new hybrid electric power units, they also feature a space-frame chassis under their carbon fibre bodywork.
While a lot of the aero has been toned down from the previous generation of WRC car, in the flesh these things are still wild. After three back-to-back tarmac and snow rounds, the beefed-up suspension and tyres would see their first taste of gravel in Portugal.
All three of the cars have added cooling scoops to direct air towards their hybrid power units, but it’s telling how Hyundai have placed a big emphasis on aerodynamic tunnels in the bumpers to keep air-flow under the i20, while Toyota has gone and fitted one of the biggest wings in motorsport to keep its Yaris pinned to the road.
I’d barely been in the hotel for seven hours before my alarm work me at 5:00am. There was a stage to catch and, specifically, a set of hairpins picked out on the maps. Rally Portugal’s organisers put together an incredibly useful book, with each special stage’s best vantage points listed. Even though this had been sent to me 10 days prior to the event, I was up every night late, checking out the following day’s stages for the first time.
Hiking up through a small mountainside town in the dawn sunshine, there was a real sense of anticipation in the air. After 20 minutes of climbing, the road appeared between the trees. Position found, it was time to wait.
Soon enough, the unmerciful howl of a Toyota Yaris Rally1 powering through the dense woods came into earshot. All around, people edged forward, phones and cameras primed to record the moment.
Throttle pinned, the red and white Yaris appeared, seemingly aiming directly for my current spot. Thirty metres out, a faint flick left in followed immediately by a forceful tug right, and the little Toyota nosed for the corner’s apex. Throttle delicately feathered, all of the 500hp+ on offer was pushed to the four wheels, and in a matter of seconds Kalle Rovanperä had come and gone. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, before being totally doused in a cloak of dust.
As the cars pass by – in four-minute intervals due to the excessive dust – I move around and find alternative vantage points. A friendly police officer present speaks no English, and I no Portuguese, but a bit of pointing and hand gestures do the trick.
Everywhere I move, there is no let up in the crowd size. This is 8:00am on a Friday morning.
Heading down the hill, the inside of another hairpin looks like somewhere I can shoot from. Like much of the weekend, it was a case of figuring out safe and responsible places to position myself.
As the day’s sunshine began to break through the tree cover, the temperatures began to creep up. By the time I’d seen enough of the Lousá stage it was already in the mid-20-degrees Celsius range, and by 10:00am it had hit 35°C (95°F).
Off the first loop, I had a spot picked on Gois – the day’s middle stage – which looked promising. Right atop a mountainous plateau, the cars were visible here for well over 90 seconds, powering down the valley before taking a reasonably flat right-hander, once more in front of what seemed like hundreds if not thousands of spectators. Mercifully, the wind here sent the dust plumes in the opposite direction. My skin, which was at this point covered in a mixture of sun cream and dirt, had begun to resemble a streaky fake tan, so any reprieve was welcomed.
From my vantage point it was interesting to see the way the different cars reacted to a bump on the inside of the corner. The longer Ford Puma rode through with ease, every Yaris seemed to bounce up an inside wheel, and the Hyundais all seemed to dramatically nosedive into the bend.
Once the Rally1 crews had passed, I knew there was a chance to catch the day’s final proper stage, Mortagua, but only if I got a hurry on. Camera bag launched into the boot and dusty walking boots still on, I headed north, timing it just right. There were 15 minutes to spare once I was stage-side at pair of hairpins less than 150m apart. The incredibly rutted road should have been a warning.
Pitching into the right-hander, the cars sent a Dakar-esque shower of soft dirt shooting out from behind them, or oddly only in the case of the Toyotas, over them.
Having nearly passed out from the heat and feeling mentally drained, I called it a day after the leading cars. While I intended to get to the Lousada super special, the allure of a wash, cold beer and rest won out.
I was grateful for the rest when my alarm went off at 3:30am. I had found an incredible spot, and I needed to be up at this ungodly hour to see the the first car burst over the Vieira do Minho jump in five hours’ time.
While Friday had been hot and dusty amongst the low-lying trees, Saturday for me was all about wide-open expanses across the mountaintops and a cooler temperature. As the WRC helicopter began to circle, it was clear the start was near. Within a handful of minutes, nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb was bursting over the blind crest, launching his Ford Puma Rally1 skyward.
Every car that came seemed to soar higher, some dramatically cutting the inside of the crest to eek the slightest advantage. Loeb, Ogier, Tanak, Neuville, Katsuta, Breen, Sordo, Evans, and the new king in waiting Rovanperä – here in the mountains I stood and watched them fly at absolute maximum attack. It was only as the pace dropped off through the subsequent WRC2 cars that I was truly able to appreciate just how quick the new Rally1 machines are.
The stunning scenery and a multitude of different angles all within an easy walk of each other was an absolute a dream for someone that enjoys photographing rally cars.
The Rally2 cars ultimately gave way to the Rally3 machines and the incredibly quick and committed WRC Junior drivers, a handful of the sport’s brightest up-and-coming stars. Powered by 1.5L three-cylinder turbo engines similar to that in the latest generation of Fiesta ST road car, these 4WD machines push out 215hp and 400Nm. In capable hands they are spectacular.
The whole Rally3 field was stacked with talent, and in difficult conditions all weekend it was Sami Pajari, a Finn, who took the win. Lauri Joona (Finland), Robert Virves (Estonia), Jon Armstrong (United Kingdom) and William Creighton (Ireland) all scored stage wins across the weekend, so the battle for the championship title is incredibly tight.
Due to the nature of the day’s itinerary, it made sense to stay on the same stage. Hanging around the start line, it was fascinating to see the focus and determination in the eyes of the top drivers and co-drivers as they waited for their second pass through.
With photo access limited, I bolted back up an internal road in time to catch the two leading Toyotas at full chat. On a very tough and challenging event, the pair of Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä operated on a completely different plain to the rest of the field. While their driving seemed uneventful, by the end of the event they sat more than two minutes ahead of third-placed Dani Sordo in his Hyundai.
As the day went on, it was refreshing to stroll around, chat to fans from all over the world and, for a few moments at least, actually enjoy the rally without the pressure of having to rush off to another stage or location.
For the final day, I made a personal call inspired by the relaxed approach I took on Saturday evening – I went spectating for an hour in the morning without my camera to simply savour the magic of the event. As the rain fell, I stood amongst the fans at a hairpin early on in the Fafe stage, but I knew there was a special point at the end of the stage I would be heading for.
The iconic jump, complete with windmill in the background, has been Rally Portugal’s most recognisable spot for its 55-year history. Lined on both sides of the road by thousands of fans, the sounds of engines on their rev-limiters is matched by the guttural cheers of the crowd.
The first car over the jump was eye-opening. Yohan Rossel in his Rally2 Citroën C3 drew gasps from the audience, but within minutes I was shouting expletives as the top machines flew higher and further.
From every angle, this place is incredibly. I had worried about the cliché nature of the jump and how common it is to shoot, but there’s so much passion here, something many other iconic rally locations have seemed to lose in recent years. Yes, I’m talking about you, Col de Turini!
Time up on my schedule, I packed away the cameras and headed back to the car. I had a flight to catch, part of a lengthy journey home ahead.
What the next seven hours did was allow me to sit and ponder just how incredible an experience Rally Portugal had been. From a competitive point, it was Kalle Rovanperä who beat Elfyn Evans, leaving the young Finn with a huge WRC lead having won three events in a row. But for me personally, I’ll remember this event for the insane atmosphere stage-side, and the excitement these new generation Rally1 cars create. And the dust; I don’t think I’ll ever completely rid myself of it.
Cutting Room Floor