More than 70 crews will contest the 50th running of Rali Vinho Madeira this week, round seven of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Featuring a total of 21 stages, the all-asphalt event starts on Thursday July 30 and draws to a close on Saturday August 1.
event is one of the most popular rallies in Europe, boasting a unique atmosphere and a huge contingent of fast and talented rally stars from Portugal to take on the rest of the world.
The entry list contains a total of 21 crews racing in Super 2000 machinery. Overall, 53 entries are from Portugal, including 39 from the island of Madeira, while 19 are of other nationalities: nine coming from Italy, four from France, and two from the United Kingdom, including Kris Meeke, the current leader of the IRC drivers' standings, and the impressive new Proton driven by Guy Wilks.
Meeke's title lead remains just one point over Czech ace Jan Kopecky, but the works Skoda star won't be back until next month for his home event, giving Meeke and Belgian title rival Freddy Loix the chance to maximise their scoring potential for Peugeot.
With defending champion Nicolas Vouilloz of France and hard-charging Giandomenico Basso leading the way for Abarth, the stage is set for a thrilling event.
Of the local drivers expected to make an impression, youngsters Bruno Magalhaes, driving a Peugeot 207 S2000, and Bernardo Sousa, in an Abarth Grande Punto, are the two most likely to trouble the IRC front-runners.
Magalhaes is the current Portuguese champion while Sousa was born in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, and learned his trade competing on its demanding asphalt roads.
He was a two-time winner of Madeira's junior championship and claimed his first overall rally win on the island when he won the Rally Porto Santo Line in 2007.
Since then the 22-year-old has competed in the Production Car World Rally Championship and made his IRC debut in Portugal in May 2008. He will drive an Abarth Grande Punto Super 2000 for the Italian Procar team alongside co-driver Jorge Carvalho.
Sousa's only other appearance in the IRC this year was at the Rally Azores in May when he finished tenth behind Magalhaes.
Another eagerly-anticipated performance will be that of 2008 IRC 2WD Champion Marco Cavigioli, who will return to the IRC in Madeira at the wheel of an Abarth Grande Punto S2000. With co-driver Enrico Cantoni alongside him, the talented Italian is keen to make a big splash on his asphalt outing.
The 2WD Cup is sure to provide fireworks in the Atlantic as well, with the return of two of the top contenders – Manuel Villa in his Fiat Punto S1600 and the remarkable turbocharged Peugeot 207 RC of Denis Milet – with both men determined to put a halt to Honda's recent run of form.
They will take on a huge number of local stars in similar equipment in what will be another key battle to savour on the Rali Vinho Madeira.