Evans left it late to top the timesheets but his time of two minutes 56.1 seconds through the 4.55 kilometres of ‘Paredes’ was four tenths of a second up on that of M-Sport Ford ace Craig Breen.

Welshman Evans really needs a strong result this weekend on the series’ first proper gravel event and his road position on the first day of action on Friday could prove decisive if that is to happen. “It’s always a help, so we need to make the most of that,” admitted Evans, a double WRC runner-up.

In the build up to Portugal, Breen spoke of his confidence on the loose. He enjoyed a positive pre-event test and knows the Puma Rally1 intimately on gravel having amassed plenty of miles in it during the car's test and development phase.

“The car feels nice and I had a nice feeling,” said the Irishman at the end of his first run through ‘Paredes’. “But for sure, we have got some things to improve, but it is all okay."

2019 champion Ott Tanak said Portugal was a voyage of discovery for him and his team but going by his early running, the i20 N Rally1 machine is definitely in the ballpark to compete for podium places. His best time of two minutes 56.8 seconds was just three tenths of a second down on Breen.

Closer, still, was the gap between Tanak and his Hyundai Motorsport team-mate Thierry Neuville. The Belgian – a winner in Portugal from 2018 – has vowed to “be on it all the time” as he tries to narrow the gap to current points leader and last month’s Croatia Rally winner, Kalle Rovanpera.

M-Sport Ford's Pierre-Louis Loubet excelled in fifth, going one-tenth quicker than WRC veteran Dani Sordo who is making his Rally1 debut for Hyundai Motorsport, and two-tenths faster than Toyota Gazoo Racing's Sebastien Ogier.

The first effort by Ogier was hampered by intercom issues and that forced his co-driver Benjamin Veillas to use hand signals to get them safelty to the end.

"The car feels okay," said 8-time champion Ogier, "but we have to start to get the feeling again. It's a little bit slippery with the hard tyres, but we'll try to build slowly up." Rovanpera, and the M-Sport Ford duo of Gus Greensmith and Sebastien Loeb rounded out the top ten places.

The real action at Rally de Portugal begins this evening immediately after crews take part in the official start ceremony in Coimbra. The only new stage of the entire weekend, it totals just 2.82km in length.

On Friday, a tyre fitting zone is sandwiched in-between two loops of ‘Lousa’, ‘Gois’ and ‘Arganil’ before teams turn their attention to ‘Mortagua’ (18.15km) and a short super special in Lousada before heading back to service.

Saturday will be the key leg of the gravel counter as almost half of the total stage miles is crammed into two loops of the same three timed tests. Located in the Cabreira Mountains, ‘Vieira do Minho’ (21.57km) is followed by ‘Cabeceiras de Basto’ (22.03km) and ‘Amarante’ – the longest test of the three-day event at 37.24km. Day two concludes with a coastal street stage in Porto Foz.

The final leg takes in ‘Felgueiras’ (8.91km), ‘Montim’ (8.69km) and the famous stretch of ‘Fafe’ (11.18km) before cars pass over ‘Felgueiras’ and the end-of-rally ‘Fafe’ power stage for a second time.