Ott Tänak established an early lead on Rally Portugal’s opening stage ahead of Hyundai team-mate Dani Sordo, but M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith starred by matching the time set by third-place driver Thierry Neuville.
The leading quartet were separated by just 0.5 seconds, with only 5.5s covering nine of the 10 World Rally Cars.
Tires were tipped to be a talking point this weekend, with drivers fearing the eight softs available might not be enough for the entire weekend. But every crew opted for the same strategy on Friday morning, selecting four of those soft compound Pirellis and one hard.
However the main talking point from the Lousã stage was Hyundai’s stalling engine as both Tänak and Sordo suffered a half-spin with their i20 Coupe WRC’s engine briefly cutting out at a hairpin.
While it did not prevent either of them filling out the top two positions, it certainly cost them at least a couple of seconds.
Neuville ensured it was a Hyundai 1-2-3, and was happier with the feeling and performance of his i20.
“To be honest I wasn’t so happy after shakedown but I wasn’t sure how the car was going to be behave but at the end I felt traction was quite good and I could play with the car, that’s quite important,” he said.
Greensmith, returning to an event with a World Rally Car for the first time, was even more buoyant, pleased with changes he made to his M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC pre-event.
“The work we did on the test and the ideas we came up with seem to have brought this car alive for me, so let’s keep this going,” he said.
Shakedown pacesetter Elfyn Evans was the leading Toyota driver in fifth place, 2.5s adrift of the lead and 0.4s up on team-mate Kalle Rovanperä, who completed his first full stage since February.
Takamoto Katsuta was seventh fastest, 4.7s shy of Tänak’s benchmark but 0.4s clear of world championship leader Sébastien Ogier, who admitted he “struggled to find” a rhythm on the opening stage as the road-sweeper,
M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux, starting his first gravel rally in a World Rally Car, was ninth, 0.4s behind Ogier and loving every minute of it. “It’s amazing, enjoying a lot in the stage it’s just brilliant,” he said.
“It’s just so nice you can slide and keep the speed. OK it wasn’t the perfect drive for me but I was enjoying so much. I need to improve my pace but I know where I can improve so honestly it’s really good.”
2C Competition Hyundai driver Pierre-Louis Loubet completed the top 10, 13.4s shy of the lead after confessing he took it too carefully.
While the withdrawal of both Andreas Mikkelsen and Ole Christian Veiby because of positive COVID-19 tests reduced the WRC2 field from 12 to 10 cars, the battle still proved incredibly fierce on Portugal’s opening test.
Nikolay Gryazin set the quickest category time in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, a single second ahead of reigning champion Mads Østberg as the close tussle between the pair in Croatia threatened to repeat itself.
M-Sport’s Teemu Suninen was third, just 0.3s back from Østberg. Esapekka Lappi was another 5.8s behind, edging Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg by less than half a second.
1 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai) 9m04.7s
2 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +0.4s
3 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai) +0.5s
4 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +0.5s
5 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) +2.5s
6 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota) +2.9s
7 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +4.7s
8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +5.1s
9 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +5.5s
10 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Florian Haut-Labourdette (2C Competition Hyundai) +13.4s