The WRC2 battle at Rally de Portugal has the makings of being an absolute classic, as any one of 10 drivers has a real shout of spraying the champagne from the top step of the podium come Sunday afternoon.
The odds are strong for Frenchman Yohan Rossel; he has returned two maximum scores from two starts to grab the early initiative in the World Rally Championship's main support series.
Stan Sport is the only way to watch every round of WRC. Click here for all the action streaming ad-free, live and on demand.
However, not content with triumphing on Tarmac at the wheel of his PH Sport-run Citroen C3 Rally2 supermini at Rallye Monte-Carlo and Croatia Rally, Rossel is now turning his attention to gravel.
To preserve his perfect start alongside Arnaud Dunand, the 28-year-old is going to have to keep a pack of seriously quick WRC2 crews in the newest Hyundai, M-Sport Ford, and Skoda Rally2 cars at arm's length.
“I won in Croatia, it was important for the Championship, for my team and my co-driver,” said Rossel, with the significance of back-to-back victories not lost on Dunand, either. “WRC2 is very difficult this year, there are lots of good competitors, but the next rally is on gravel, so let's see what happens,” he added.
Rossel provisionally leads the way on 53 points, nine clear of reigning WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm – a notable absentee as the master's thesis seminar for his finance degree is taking place in his native Finland – and a further point to the good over Rally Sweden victor Oliver Solberg.
Excitement levels have been raised by the welcome return of Andreas Mikkelsen. The 2021 WRC2 winner is back in top-flight action for the first time since September's Acropolis Rally – an appearance that was cut short when the Norwegian damaged his steering on the opening stage.
Mikkelsen's absence has, in part, been self-inflicted. He lost his place around the Toksport WRT table for this year by channelling time and effort towards landing a Rally1 seat at Hyundai Motorsport only to come out second best in that battle to Finland's Esapekka Lappi. However, he is back, and Portugal is set to be the first of several outings between now and the end of the season.
All three are set to run up-dated versions of the squad's Fiesta Rally2, the most recent development coming in the shape of a reworked differential that is reported to have made instant and much-needed improvements.
A larger raft of changes is currently being worked on by engineers back at Cockermouth in England, but when these will make the light of day is still months away, with the specifics remaining a closely guarded secret.
Meanwhile, Teemu Suninen resumes his WRC2 campaign in a factory-backed i20 N Rally2 on Friday morning and five-time World Rally winner Kris Meeke makes his first World Rally Championship outing since his Toyota Gazoo Racing days.
The Northern Irishman has been asked to lead the Hyundai Portugal effort following the sudden death of Craig Breen during a pre-Croatia Rally testing accident last month.
Strength in depth is further added by former Rally1 points scorer Gus Greensmith – something his Toksport WRT team-mate has alluded to in his pre-rally comments.
“The fight for the Championship is already really tight, with Yohan and my Toksport team-mates – but then we have Andreas, Kris and Nasser [Al-Attiyah] coming as well,” said Oliver Solberg, the son of 2003 World Rally Champion Petter. “There are over 40 cars on the entry list in WRC2 – that's amazing!
“Winning in Sweden was a great way to start our WRC2 season in our Toksport Skoda, and that's what we have to be aiming for in Portugal, but it's going to be tough. I think the entry is probably the strongest I've ever seen for a WRC2 round. There are so many big names around.”