The Finn trailed longtime leader and Toyota GR Yaris team-mate Elfyn Evans for the first two days of the Vodafone Rally de Portugal before sending off the Welshman on Saturday night. On the short last stage he extended a narrow lead and won by 15.2 seconds.
Rovanperä’s triumph in the first gravel race of the season was followed by successes on Sweden’s snow and ice and Croatia’s asphalt. After four of 13 rounds he has a championship lead of 46 points.
Victory seemed all but impossible for Rovanperä, who started Friday’s opening round first in order. He cleaned the sandy roads to give those in pursuit more grip, but the 21-year-old avoided trouble on the hard, rock-strewn roads before pouncing on Evans.
Maximum bonus points for defeating the legendary FAFE speed test in the final Wolf Power Stage were the icing on the cake.
“Right now it looks like we’re on a really good path,” he smiled. “Being the first to start here and fighting for victory was really nice. We have seen a lot of problems and difficult conditions this weekend and our car has been perfect as always so everyone can be really happy.”
Second was the best result of the season for Evans, who won six of the 21 speed tests compared to Rovanperä’s eight. It was a return to form for the man who has finished second in the Championship for the last two seasons after a stellar start to the year.
“We absolutely needed a result, that’s for sure,” he admitted. “Of course we are disappointed with today’s result, but I take my hat off to Kalle. From my side it’s nice to be back on the podium and we should be able to build from here.”
Toyota Gazoo Racing was on course to secure the podium while Takamoto Katsuta was third ahead of the final stage. But a quick-closing Dani Sordo, racing in a Hyundai i20 N for the first time this season, prevailed by 2.1 seconds in the final kilometers.
Thierry Neuville was sidelined in Friday’s battle for victory when a front wheel fell off his i20 N at a liaison section. He rode only two-wheel drive for the last two stages and crashed from second to seventh place. He recovered and finished fifth, 18.4 seconds behind Katsuta.
Brake problems cost Craig Breen sixth place. The Irishman dropped two places in his Ford Puma on the final day, allowing Ott Tänak to finish sixth in the i20. The Estonian steadily gained ground after two punctures ended his challenge on Friday.
Video: Vodafone Rally de Portugal SS21
Pierre-Louis Loubet steered his Puma to seventh place despite similar problems as Breen. Adrien Fourmaux and last WRC2 winner Yohan Rossel completed the ranking.
Competitors face hot weather and rough roads when the WRC moves to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia next month. The Rally Italia Sardegna will take place in Alghero from June 2nd to 5th.