Pierre-Louis Loubet has stormed into an early, albeit slender, lead of Rally of Portugal ahead of Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.
Lousã kickstarted a punishing Friday leg which comprises eight special stages and no midday service break – just a remote tire fitting zone in Arganil instead.
Gaps between the Rally1 cars were extended from the usual three minutes to four to combat the hanging dust lingering between the trees.
That was one problem championship leader Elfyn Evans didn’t need to worry about as first car onto the road, but he had bigger concerns on his mind with a load of loose gravel to sweep clear for his chasing rivals.
“Pretty difficult to be honest,” Evans assessed. “Grip seems very low in there, but as to be expected really.”
The stage time proved it too as Evans immediately lost 5.3s to next on the road Kalle Rovanperä.
“It felt like a good stage,” said the world champion.
“For sure there was some dust in place hanging in the forest so not easy to push in the dust but clean stage, all OK.”
However, Rovanperä’s fastest time lasted all of four minutes as third on the road Ott Tänak immediately went faster – although just by 0.3s.
And it’s fair to say the 2019 world champion wasn’t overly complementary about his Ford Puma Rally1 at stage-end.
“It’s a shaky ride at the moment, it’s like a wooden horse,” Tänak said. “When it’s smoother it’s a bit better but on the bedrock it’s a bit shaky.”
Despite the shakiness, Tänak’s time would still be good enough for third fastest as road position for the later runners proved crucial.
Sordo was the first driver to pip Tänak, but M-Sport team-mate Pierre-Louis Loubet was even faster still – setting the pace by 0.3s.
“Good start!” Loubet beamed.
“Better to start like that. But yes, stay focused we have to continue. But it’s a good start.”
Tänak is just 2.3s off the lead, with Rovanperä fourth and an impressive Takamoto Katsuta just 0.8s shy of his team-mate.
Esapekka Lappi is sixth, six tenths slower than Katsuta and just four seconds off the lead, after driving the stage “smartly” to beat team-mate Thierry Neuville by just one second.
“Maybe I was a bit too careful with the tires in some of the sections,” Neuville commented, “but I had a good clean run.”
Unsurprisingly, Evans was the slowest of the Rally1 runners, 2.9s down on Neuville.
Teemu Suninen set the pace in WRC2, beating an equally impressive Adrien Fourmaux by 1.2s. Yohan Rossel, Oliver Solberg and Gus Greensmith complete the early top five with WRC returnee Kris Meeke eighth, 10.5s off the pace.