Elfyn Evans set the pace on the shakedown stage for the second World Rally Championship event in succession in Portugal as the series returns to gravel for the first time since last October.
The Toyota driver lies third in the standings after two second-place finishes from three rounds, and set a benchmark time of 3m05.9s on shakedown, a mere 0.2 seconds quicker than Hyundai’s Ott Tänak and 0.3s clear of Kalle Rovanperä.
Tänak – the defending event winner from 2019 – is being tipped as a favorite for victory this weekend given his starting position of fourth on Friday, and his game plan for Portugal for is clear.
“Everything is possible,” he said. “We’ll work to get the feeling and get the confidence but for sure everything is possible.”
Despite his strong shakedown pace however, Rovanperä’s aims are a little more modest following his first stage accident last time out on Rally Croatia.
“I think the target is the same as always, just to drive a good race,” said the Toyota driver. “It’s nice to be back in gravel, first time now driving in these almost dry conditions on these new Pirellis so it will be a big learning for us but nice to see how it goes.”
It was Toyota junior Takamoto Katsuta that was quickest of all on the first pass of shakedown, stopping the clocks 0.4s clear of Evans’s similar Yaris WRC.
The Japanese kept his nose near the top of the times too, finishing up just 0.8s adrift of the fastest time, going fourth quickest.
“It’s going to be a tough weekend as always but I try to push a bit more on this event as it’s a bit more familiar,” said Katsuta. “First time this event with Yaris WRC but let’s see what I can do.”
While at one stage Katsuta, Evans and Sébastien Ogier had set an identical time of 3m08.3s in their Toyotas, it was championship leader Ogier who struggled to make as many gains, setting a best time that was 0.1s shy of Katsuta’s but still within a second of the ultimate pace.
Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo were a somewhat muted seventh and eighth fastest for Hyundai. Separated by 0.2s, Neuville’s time of 3m07.4s was 1.5s down on Evans’ best effort.
Shakedown was a troubled affair for M-Sport, with full-time driver Gus Greensmith running into technical trouble and failing to set a time for two hours.
The team did however resolve the issue, and he was able to set an identical time to team-mate Adrien Fourmaux on his first pass and then find further improvements to go sixth fastest, 0.3s adrift of Ogier.
Fourmaux, fresh from a stunning World Rally Car championship debut in Croatia, stalled at the start of his first run and was the only driver to take the maximum attempts at the stage as he looked to build his experience with the car on gravel.
“I’m just happy to be here to be honest,” he said, “it’s a really nice experience for me to take on this rally and it will be a challenge because we have a muddy test last weekend so it [the conditions have] changed a lot!”
Fourmaux was 10th fastest, 1.6s in arrears of 2C Competition’s Pierre-Louis Loubet in the fourth Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC. Loubet confessed he needs “to take the confidence back after a difficult start to the season”.
The battle in WRC2 has been heavily talked about as it features several world rally winners, and it was Esapekka Lappi – WRC2 winner on Arctic Rally Finland – that laid down an early marker.
He set the pace with just one run in his Movistar-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, albeit by just 0.4s over his former M-Sport team-mate Teemu Suninen.
“I’m sure we can be on the fight for the win and the level of the competition is wider for this rally and I’m really happy that it is because we’re going to have a proper fight this rally,” Lappi surmised.
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 3m05.9s
2 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) +0.2s
3 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +0.3s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +0.8s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +0.9s
6 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +1.2s
7 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +1.5s
8 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +1.7s
9 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Vincent Landais (2C Hyundai) +2.4s
10 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +3.8s