Rovanpera took full advantage of running as the first car on the road across the morning loop, cleaning three of the four tests to eke out a 12.5 second advantage over the Hyundai I20 N of Thierry Neuille.

While the 21-year-old had rain and fog to contend with in the hills above the capital much like the rest of the field, mud was less of an issue. Not even a brush with a fence on the closing ‘Pecurkovo Brdo – Mreznicki Novaki’ test before crews made their way back to the service park interrupted his rhythm.

Road conditions evolved for the second pass but a 40 second penalty meted out to Thierry Neuville for his late arrival to the midday service time control failed to alter Rovanpera's approach. It was rotten luck on an exhausted Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe who were forced to push their sick i20N Rally1 car all of 800 metres to the check-in point after a faulty alternator prevented the engine from firing up.

Despite having considerable wriggle room, Rovanpera picked up where he left off across the second pass, peppering his rivals with a further three scratch times to cap off arguably one of his best days in the sport’s top division with the Japanese marque.

Having dropped down to fourth as a result of his time penalty, Neuville bounced back immediately on the first afternoon test to reclaim second. He went on to trade places with Ott Tanak – his opposite number at Hyundai – but completed the day in second position, a minute and four seconds in arrears of Rovanpera.

Tanak's grip on the runner-up spot was weakened by a puncture and an issue with the hybrid energy recovery system in his car - but the 2019 champion summed up his performance by describing it as an "OK day". He added: "It's unfortunate for the puncture, but this was the maximum we could do."

Ireland's Craig Breen adjusted to the ice-like grip levels well following an early overshoot to cement fourth, while Oliver Solberg survived suspected gearbox gremlins on SS5 and a high-speed aquaplaning moment on SS6 to round out the top five positions.

Toyota's Elfyn Evans recovered well from a disastrous morning in which he collected a front-left puncture that cost him the best part of a minute and 20 seconds to consolidate sixth ahead of the similar Yaris GR Rally1 car belonging to Takamoto Katsuta.

The gap between the Toyota pair mushroomed to almost 39 seconds on Friday's closing blast when Katsuta had to negotiate a portion of it with only three fully inflated tyres - a fate that also befel M-Sport's Gus Greensmith in eighth.

Elsehwere, Esapekka Lappi’s second appearance for the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team lasted little more than 6 miles on Friday when his Yaris GR lost a fight with a large rock seated on the racing line of a right-hander. The Finn banged the supermini’s front-right rim against it and immediately sustained terminal suspension damage.

He was soon joined on the sidelines by M-Sport Ford’s Pierre-Louis Loubet as a result of the Frenchman collecting a double front puncture on today’s opener before the replacement front-left wheel let go on the second stage. With his Puma Rally1 largely undamaged, he is expected to restart tomorrow.

On the penultimate stage of the morning loop, Loubet’s countryman and running-mate Adrien Fourmaux left the road barely 200 metres into the start of ‘Krasic – Vrskovac’. Footage shows the rear of his Puma breaking free on a patch of shiny tar and from that point on he was effectively a passenger.

Fourmaux and co-driver Alexandre Coria walked away uninjured from the shunt that ended up with them coming to a stop in the garden of a spectator’s house. Despite their car looking rather second-hand, it is thought to be OK structurally and should therefore be deemed safe to resume service on Saturday.