The 2021 FIA Junior WRC Championship heads to Portugal for the first gravel round of the season following a thrilling start in Croatia.
Heading to Portugal, Jon Armstrong leads the junior field following his Croatian victory with 27 points but the championship is still wide open with second to fifth only separated by three points.
A classic for the World Rally Championship, Rally de Portugal only made its Junior WRC debut in 2007 and has thrown up drama and excitement on every appearance since. Even in its first year, the rally delivered an exciting battle between Urmo Aava and Per Gunnar Andersson, with the latter coming from over one-minute behind Aava to winning by just 3.7 seconds.
The 2021 edition of Rally de Portugal promises to be an unpredictable and competitive prospect for this year’s Junior WRC crews who will look to employ a variety of strategies to take top honours come Sunday. Some crews will look to extend an early advantage and collect some stage win points, it is a strategy which has risks attached, with a higher chance for accidents or punctures. The alternative approach that other drivers may opt for is a more measured drive with a heavy focus on getting to the finish line. The conservative strategy paid off for Enrico Oldrati and David Holder who finished second and third when Junior WRC last visited Portugal. On the same rally title contenders Emil Bergkvist, Ken Torn and Julius Tannert all took stage win points but lost out on a good haul of classification points thanks to mistakes while pushing too hard.
Crews can use a maximum of 22 tyres on Rally de Portugal (including shakedown) with 20 Pirelli Scorpion K4 (hard) and 8 Pirelli Scorpion K6 (soft) to choose form. As usual, selecting the right compound of Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres will be a deciding factor as crews will need to strike a balance between managing their tyres across the rough Portuguese terrain while maintaining a competitive pace. The soft K6 compound is commonly used if rain arrives, but history has seen some crews field the soft tyre on super special stages too, in an effort to edge out rivals in the battle for stage win points.
The fight for victory on Portugal will be wide open in 2021 thanks to the unique mix of experience and talent represented in this year’s crews. Jon Armstrong and Martin Koci put their experience to good use on Croatia Rally, with the former winning the event and the latter leading on Friday and Saturday. The pair both have experience on Rally de Portugal with Koci claiming second and third in Junior WRC in 2014 and 2016 respectively. While the other six crews don’t have experience of Rally de Portugal’s stages, they bring with them a wealth of talent and eagerness to win that should set Junior WRC up for another fantastic fight for victory.
Maciej Woda, FIA Junior WRC Championship Manager, said: “Rally de Portugal will be our first gravel event of the season so we can expect to see something totally different than last time out in Croatia. One thing is for sure though, it is going to be extremely competitive and I think we will see some interesting strategies play out between our crews. Even though six of our crews are driving on Rally de Portugal for the first time I expect them to learn the roads quickly and be in a position to attack the stages where they can, but it remains to be seen which crews might get caught out when pushing too hard. Road knowledge can be helpful on this rally but our experienced crews still need to stay razor sharp as the these stages can develop and change a lot. Another key factor on Portugal will be the weather and how prepared crews are for this. As we are close to the coast, the weather can change very quickly which we have seen on Portugal before with wet and dry stages each bringing their own unique challenges. It feels like we are also reaching a milestone as a sport too, as we welcome spectators back to some stages in Portugal, a huge amount of thanks is owed to the organisers, WRC Promoter and FIA. Their hard work to put on a full mileage event with spectators in the continuously evolving situation we are facing is greatly appreciated.”
59. Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall
“I’m really looking forward to Rally de Portugal. It’s a very demanding event that takes both speed and a little bit of care for the car and tyres. It’s a nice challenge. To be going into a rally leading the championship is really cool for me personally, now we just need to keep performing at our best and see where we are at the end of the rally.”
60. Martins Sesks / Renars Francis
“I haven’t done Rally de Portugal before, I did Azores which is a completely different rally. From the experience I have I think it will be something similar to Sardinia with some really narrow sections but also fast parts as well as some really rough parts with rocks. We will have to manage our pace and tactics through the rally because the first day is without a service which means you have to manage the car yourself and everything around you to finish the day. Something new for this rally, I’m preparing for the rally differently with video recce and some notes heading into recce after watching onboards, we’ll see how that goes.”
61. Sami Pajari / Marko Salminen
“Gravel isn’t a bad surface for me, I don’t know what my favourite surface is, I like them all I think. We tested here yesterday, it was very wet and slippery, it was raining most of the day. We saw it was drying really fast too though when the rain stopped. When it rains though, it is so slippery compared to when it rains at home, it’s like a tropical storm. Croatia wasn’t too bad after all the difficulties, I think we have had one crash already though now so it would be nice to make it clean here. It’s a long a rough rally and a lot can happen.”
62. Lauri Joona / Ari Koponen
“My thoughts on Portugal are that I think it will be the toughest in Junior WRC this year. You will need to very clever, save your tyres and the whole car to make it to the finish line. Of course you can drive fast but still be last, we are thinking about the tactics and will see if they worked after the rally.”
63. Martin Koci / Petr Tesisnky
“I am really looking forward to this event, I have some really good memories from my time here, I have been here a few times, the last time was 2016, we finished second after losing the lead and breaking a damper on the last section. It was still a great rally which I really enjoyed. Definitely looking forward to it even though it is also going be tricky with the first day being a very long day with no service. The second day is a big portion of mileage so we will see. It is going to be hard with the tyres and strategy, we have done some testing to help us and I have to say I love driving on gravel.”
64. William Creighton / Liam Regan
“I have done a lot of preparation for Portugal and watch it a lot on TV, it gets really rough with lots of ruts and looks like a really challenging event. We’re going to try and stay out of trouble, which is easier said than done a bit like in Croatia, we’ll push where we feel comfortable. It’s my first time on European gravel so we are going to treat it as a new experience and build on it through the weekend.”
65. Raul Badiu / Rares Fetean
“Historically we have had really good results on rough rallies like Portugal. I’m thinking about Turkey in 2018 where I had really good pace and also Sardinia in 2019. I hope I can improve on those results and continue my campaign for the Junior WRC title.”
66. Robert Virves / Sander Pruul
“The test was quite ok, it was very narrow and slow but it gave us a good picture of the rally we have ahead of us. I don’t know how to play my strategy yet, I want to see the stages first as I think that it could get really rough and I don’t want to be pushing too much on the limit, I want to get to the finish with four wheels this time, not three.”
Croatia Rally Classification:
1. Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall 03:15:07.6
2. Martins Sesks / Renars Francis +33.5s
3. Lauri Joona / Ari Koponen +48.8s
4. Martin Koci / Petr Tesinsky +02:46.1
5. William Creighton / Liam Regan +03:35.5
6. Sami Pajari / Marko Salminen +03:36.7
7. Robert Virves / Sander Pruul +01:13:24.3
8. Raul Badiu / Rares Fetean +01:22:32.6
Croatia Rally Stage Wins:
1. Sami Pajari / Marko Salminen 9
2. Martin Koci / Petr Tesinsky 3
3. Raul Badiu / Rares Fetean 3
4. Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall 2
5. Lauri Joona / Ari Koponen 1