Sebastien Loeb believes that next week's Rally of Portugal will offer the first meaningful assessment of the season of the pace of his Citroen DS3 WRC against the Ford Fiesta RS WRC.
The world champion admitted that he was alarmed at the increase in speed the Ford team showed on the previous gravel outing in Mexico, but said that the lower altitude Faro-based fourth round of the WRC will mean much more.
"This is the first rally where we will really be able to gauge the relative strengths of the crews," said Loeb. "In Mexico, we saw that our rivals had made a significant step forwards performance-wise at an event where they had not previously done that well. If the same is true in Portugal, then we're going to have a very close fight on our hands! As far as we're concerned, our preparations for this rally have gone well. Our DS3 WRC has been quick on all surfaces since the start of the season and I think it will be no different in Portugal.
Loeb added that the balance of power in Portugal could well end up with the team that best interprets the weather conditions.
"More so than elsewhere, it will be tricky to choose the right starting position [in Portugal]," the Frenchman said. "At night, kicked-up dust can stay in the air for ages. In conditions like that, is it better to have to sweep the loose gravel but enjoy decent visibility or have a clean racing line but run the risk of having to drive through dust clouds?
"Setting a good time in the qualifying stage won't be enough. We'll also need to analyse the weather conditions very carefully to make the right choice. One thing is for certain, however: an average‚ time and an average starting position of around seventh or eighth place would be a pretty disastrous solution all round!"