Teemu Suninen leads WRC2 after reigning champion Andreas Mikkelsen retired after the final superspecial stage with an engine problem.
Mikkelsen, back after missing Croatia, won both the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Sweden earlier in the season having adopted a sensible approach of pushing but measuring his speed and pouncing when it mattered most.
That same strategy came to the fore in Portugal too as he let a fired up Suninen take the early lead but pounced when Suninen’s fortunes changed.
Mikołaj Marczyk led the category overnight after Thursday’s Coimbra superspecial but Hyundai’s Suninen – starting his first rally in any championship this season – was boss on Friday morning as he took a clean sweep of stage wins.
In fact the former M-Sport driver had his advantage up to 16.2s with five consecutive scratch times before the rear-right tire on his i20 N Rally2 ran flat on SS7, dumping Suninen down to second.
That gifted Mikkelsen a handsome 40.9s lead at the head of the pack but he was forced to surrender it on the way to final service when his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo developed an engine problem that his Toksport team advised it would be better to nurse.
“We tried what we could, but the team said it’s better to retire the car here because there’s no way they would have time to fix it in a normal service,” Mikkelsen said.
“It’s a shame because we were driving sensibly and we had built up a big gap.”
Toksport later elected not to enter Mikkelsen’s car into the second leg under super rally rules, meaning he won’t be back on Saturday.
Despite his earlier drama Suninen therefore ended the day in the lead.
“Our day has been pretty good, the pace has been on the top but unfortunately we got that puncture,” he rued. “That’s rallying.”
Suninen managed to shade his team-mate Oliver Solberg who is competing in WRC2 this weekend as Dani Sordo drives the Rally1 Hyundai.
And it was a fraught return to the category for Solberg who battled with dust inside his car and a slow puncture that restricted him to just fourth place, 23s down on Croatia winner Yohan Rossel.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz ends Friday fourth overall ahead of Marczyk, who heads WRC2 Junior, Chris Ingram, Hyundai driver Fabrizio Zaldivar, Benito Guerra, local driver Ricardo Teodósio and Marco Bulacia.
It was a similarly dramatic day in Junior WRC that ended with reigning champion Sami Pajari over three and a half minutes out front.
Joint championship leaders Jon Armstrong and Lauri Joona had renewed their battle from rallies gone by already this season as Pajari was beset by an early puncture.
A flat for Joona then gave Armstrong a healthy minute-lead after just four stages but Pajari was the quickest mover, setting some domineering times to climb to second.
Second became first on SS7 when Armstrong was forced out by a mechanical problem and he held on until the end of the day ahead of Finnish compatriot Joona and Robert Virves in third.
William Creighton retired on the same stage as Armstrong after collecting too many punctures to continue, while McRae Kimathi – who had been third overall amidst all the drama – crashed on SS8.