Ranked as one of the sport’s most spectacular events, its stages are characterised by their sandy surface and narrow and undulating nature, breathtaking scenery and lush countryside.
And because the timed tests are often no wider than the width of a car, there is no margin for error, particularly on Sete Cidades, which includes a high-speed section along the rim of a volcanic crater lake.
Changeable weather is also a factor with conditions typically switching from glorious sunshine to showers and fog.
Following Rally Serras de Fafe - Felgueiras - Cabreira e Boticas earlier this month, the Azores hosts round two of the revamped ERC, which first stopped off on the island of São Miguel as a fully-fledged round in 2013.
Portugal’s Armindo Araújo tops the 40-strong ERC entry followed by rising talents Alberto Battistolli (Italy) and Javier Pardo (Spain). All three drive Skoda’s Fabia Rally2 Evo.
Double Junior ERC champion Ken Torn (Estonia) continues his transition to Rally2 level in a Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta.
Norbert Herczig, Ricardo Moura and Simone Tempestini, multiple national champions from Hungary, Azores and Romania respectively, also appear on the entry along with Austrian hope Simon Wagner and Italians Rachele Somaschini and Simone Campedelli.
Pardo, Tempestini and Wagner have all enrolled in the ERC-Michelin Talent Factory incentive scheme for young stars in Rally2 cars.
Briton Jon Armstrong heads the ERC3 contingent in a Fiesta Rally3 while Andrea Mabellini (Renault Clio Rally4) is the first of 11 ERC4 drivers set to take part. Meanwhile, Martins Sesks will be aiming to make it back-to-back ERC Open wins.
Efrén Llarena, runner-up to Andreas Mikkelsen in the 2021 ERC standings, is searching for a big haul of points following a troubled start to his title challenge in Fafe. The Spaniard is a big admirer of the Azorean stages.
“It’s one of the most demanding rallies because the weather can change a lot but I love this rally, it’s magical,” said Llarena, who is the eighth seed for Team MRF Tyres.
“In three years, we did second in Junior ERC, we won Junior ERC and last year, we were third overall fighting with Mikkelsen and [Dani] Sordo.”
Bruno Magalhães is a three-time Azores winner and drives for Team Hyundai Portugal. “It’s always a pleasure to come back to Azores,” he said. “I have very good memories, I love the place. It’s a fantastic event for everybody.”
The rally begins with the first of 14 stages covering 205.15km on Saturday morning. The 9.57km Ribeira Grand Power Stage brings the action to a close on Sunday afternoon.