The Belgian posted the benchmark time on his third and final pass through the 3.53km Olmedo test.
Driving a Hyundai i20 N Rally1 car, Neuville ended the session 0.3sec clear of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Esapekka Lappi, who is making his hybrid-powered gravel debut. Lappi’s GR Yaris team-mate Elfyn Evans completed the leading trio only two tenths further behind.
In dusty conditions, the sweltering heat was a key talking point. Temperatures are expected to climb as high as 35 degrees Celsius over the four-day fixture in Alghero.
“It’s going to be hot, I think,” quipped Neuville. “That’s definitely a word we’re going to be using a lot this weekend.
“They were quite challenging conditions, I have to say. The grip was low in some places, but also quite high in other areas, and I think that tyre choice will be very important in this rally as well.
“It won’t be an easy weekend, that’s for sure, but we are ready and looking forward to it,” he added.
M-Sport Ford man Pierre-Louis Loubet was the highest-placed Puma driver and trailed Evans by 1.1sec after three passes. He was 0.2sec clear of championship leader Kalle Rovanperä, who rounded off the top five in a Toyota.
As championship leader, Rovanperä starts Friday’s opening leg first. Dry conditions mean he will sweep gravel from the driving line to leave more grip and faster roads for those behind.
"It looks like it will be quite a slippery and hot weekend for us,” mused the Finn. “The conditions [in shakedown] were really slippery and it was difficult to have a good balance in the car because it was sliding so much.”
Craig Breen and Gus Greensmith brought their Puma cars home sixth and seventh, while two-time Sardinia winner Dani Sordo ended a lowly 10th. He was 3.8sec off the pace after making a series of set-up tweaks in his i20 N.
Ott Tänak only managed to complete one run within the allotted time slot before a technical issue struck his Hyundai on the road section shortly afterwards.
The leading times were:
|1.||Thierry NEUVILLE||Hyundai i20 N||2min 15.4sec|
|2.||Esapekka LAPPI||Toyota GR Yaris||+0.3sec|
|3.||Elfyn EVANS||Toyota GR Yaris||+0.5sec|
|4.||Pierre-Louis LOUBET||Ford Puma||+1.6sec|
|5.||Kalle ROVANPERÄ||Toyota GR Yaris||+1.8sec|
|6||Craig BREEN||Ford Puma||+2.0sec|
|7.||Gus GREENSMITH||Ford Puma||+2.3sec|
|8.||Takamoto KATSUTA||Toyota GR Yaris||+2.6sec|
|9.||Adrien FOURMAUX||Ford Puma||+2.7sec|
|10.||Dani SORDO||Hyundai i20 N||+3.8sec|
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