Rhys Yates will take another step in his World Rally Championship education when he tackles Vodafone Rally de Portugal for the first time next week.
The 27-year-old has made an exceptional start to his first season of competition in rallying’s big time and holds a top-10 position in the ultra-competitive WRC 2 category.
Despite a start to 2019 which included fourth place – in WRC 2 – on the world famous Rallye Monte-Carlo, Rhys insists his feet remain firmly on the floor ahead of his fourth world championship event of the season.
As was the case in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Corsica, next week will be Rhys’ first time in Portugal, where he drives a ŠKODA Fabia R5 prepared and run by the Yates family team.
Rhys answers the questions that matter pre-Portugal…
This being the fourth new rally of the season for you, you’re probably getting used to stepping into the unknown. How do you prepare for that?
RY: “I’ve spent as much time as possible watching onboard footage from other drivers competing in Portugal from years gone by. As well as that, I’ve spoken to as many people as I can who have competed on the event.
“It’s about trying to build up this picture in my mind and you keep adding to that picture, putting as much colour in as you can. It’s one thing watching the onboards to look at the profile of the roads, but what about when it rains? Or what’s it like when you do the second loop of stages, what’s the grip like? What about tyre wear…
“I’m fortunate in that James [Morgan, co-driver] has done the event three times before and our engineer in the team has done it six times, so I’ve been able to call on some good experience.
“One of the good things about this event is the new roads on the first day – they’re completely new for everybody, so we’ll have a bit more of a level playing field on Friday.
“It is tricky though, Portugal is the first full gravel WRC round we’ve ever done outside of the UK.”
What’s the objective for Portugal?
RY: “Experience. It’s all about experience for me. Does that sound boring? I was asked that before Monte, Sweden and Corsica and I keep saying the same thing, but it’s true. I have to get to the finish in Portugal and I have to do every stage, that’s the only way for me to build my experience.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want to set some times and I want to see a progression from the last WRC 2 round we did in Corsica, but I don’t want to be knocking corners off the car or landing it in a ditch.”
What can you tell us about your strategy for Vodafone Rally de Portugal?
RY: “We set the strategy during the debriefing after we’ve done the two recce runs of the stages. Once I know more about what the roads are like then we’ll sit down and decide we’re going to push harder in this sector or on that stage. I know the areas where I want to develop and focus the effort on to go quicker and that’s what the strategy is all geared towards.”
Did finishing fourth at Rallye Monte-Carlo complicate the job a little bit?
RY: “Bizarrely, it did a bit, yes. I was really pleased with fourth place, especially on an event so complicated as Monte Carlo, but I’m constantly looking for improvement. That result set the bar very high immediately and trying to better that’s a big ask – but that’s what we’re working towards.”
Tell us about the week ahead…
RY: “I travel out on Sunday so we’re settled in and ready to start testing the car in Portugal on Monday. It’s at this test that we’ll work a little bit on the set-up for the car and look at how we go about getting the best performance out of it.
“Tuesday and Wednesday are recce days where we drive the stages in a road car at much slower speed. I give James a description of the road which he writes in note form and then reads back to me when we’re coming back down that road – at, sometimes, three times the speed – on the rally.
“Thursday is shakedown, which is final, final test for the car. We’ll only do a couple of runs here, just to get into the groove after shakedown. Then Thursday afternoon I’ll be watching the video I made from the recce and studying my notes – you’re not trying to remember the corners, that’s impossible, it’s just about familiarising yourself with them as much as possible.
“Then it’s off to the ceremonial start and an early night before the first stage on Friday.”
You didn’t compete on the two South American rounds of the world championship, but did tackle a British Rally Championship event instead. How did that go?
RY: “Great. Our programme is based around European rallies this year, that’s why we missed Argentina and Chile. Instead, we did the Pirelli International Rally, an event with some really challenging gravel stages in the Kielder forest on the English-Scottish border.
“I was pleased with how the event went. We set fastest times and finished second against some quick guys. It was good for me to go to a home rally and see the progress that I’m making by competing in the WRC. I’m sure there were folk who thought we were going up there to push hard for the win and, of course, we were giving it a very good go, but the main thing for me was to fill the gap from Corsica to Portugal and make sure we didn’t get rusty.
“I know I keep saying this, but this year is about building the experience, learning everything the WRC has to teach us.
“We’ll save our racing for next year.”
Date of birth: 06.05.92
Co-driver: James Morgan
First rally: 2013 (Alan Healy Memorial Stages, 4thin class Suzuki Swift)
Rally starts: 61
English Rally Championship, 2015
British Rally Championship, 2016/2017 (fourth)
First Briton to win Rally van Wervik (Belgium), 2018
What is WRC 2?
WRC 2 is where the World Rally Champions of tomorrow learn their craft today.
Crews contest seven rounds of the series, with the top six scores counting towards the end of year tally. Known as R5 cars, the machinery used in WRC 2 is slightly less powerful than the World Rally Cars at the very front of the field.
R5 cars run a five-speed sequential gearbox mated to mechanical front and rear differentials – all without any hydraulic or electronic assistance. The 1600cc engines are turbocharged and tuned to produce close to 280bhp. Even on snow, ice and gravel, the cars will still accelerate to 60mph in less than five seconds and they come complete with a full range of cutting-edge safety features including fighter plane-style harnesses and an all-encompassing steel roll cage.