In hot and dusty conditions, the 48-year-old leapt from seventh to first on Arganil’s famous roads to demote Elfyn Evans and head this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 0.5sec.
A furious opening to the first gravel fixture of the WRC’s hybrid era left the top six blanketed by less than seven seconds after three stages and more than 50km of action in the hills of central Portugal.
Evans was the man to beat initially. The Toyota GR Yaris driver was fastest through Lousã and Góis to lead by 5.0sec but yielded more than 10sec to the flying Frenchman in Arganil.
Hanging dust created visibility problems but Loeb was one of several M-Sport Ford drivers to also suffer inside the car as dust leaked into the cockpit of their Pumas.
Vídeo: Rovanperä in Arganil
“In the second stage it was a bit disturbing. I wasn’t able to close the door at the start and we got a lot of dust inside the car,” he explained. “I also forgot to put on the boost, so I started the stage with less power.
“In the last one, I knew that now everything is fine and we can do a good time, so I pushed really hard.”
Evans was aided by a low start position. The roads were swept clean of slippery loose sand by the early starters, offering the Welshman more grip. He took full advantage until a less than perfect drive in Arganil.
“The grip wasn’t so high. Sometimes I was pushing too much and others not enough but it’s early days yet,” he reflected.
Tyre choice was mixed across the frontrunners as they searched for the ideal balance of grip and endurance. Thierry Neuville opted for Pirelli’s soft compound Scorpion rubber and the Belgian was convinced it was the right option en route to third in his Hyundai i20 N.
He was 2.8sec adrift of Evans and 2.4sec clear of team-mate Ott Tänak and championship leader Kalle Rovanperä, who were tied in fourth.
Estonian Tänak was unhappy with his car’s balance while Rovanperä did a mighty job in his GR Yaris to minimise the time loss from the worst start position at the head of the field. The Finn also opted for soft rubber and was surprised at the high levels of wear.
Sébastien Ogier was 1.0sec back in sixth in another GR Yaris. Ogier admitted he could not drive faster and headed to the tyre change zone to analyse his performance with engineers.
Craig Breen’s visibility problems in his Puma were exacerbated by dust sticking to his glasses. Breen, Takamoto Katsuta and Dani Sordo were clustered in seventh, eighth and ninth, with Gus Greensmith 20.6sec off the lead in 10th and also blighted by dust in the car.
• Full coverage from Vodafone Rally de Portugal will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park.