Evans' confidence appeared to take a hit when his car broke free on a right-hander before the nose brushed up against a row of bushes that lined the road side. He succeeded in getting it pointing in the right direction again but for the rest of the test he dialled back his speed and surrendered first place in the process.

Rovanpera - the current leader of the World Rally Championship - will start the second full day of competition in the Baltic state tomorrow 11.7 seconds in front after once again impressing in conditions that went from being dry to wet as the weather closed in. Hyundai's Ott Tanak remains in third overnight despite having to contend with a steamed-up windscreen for the final few miles.

Evans proved uncatchable in the opening loop as he won all of Friday morning’s stages to arrive back in Tartu holding an 18.7 second lead over Rovanpera. “The car is working well – I’m feeling confident behind the wheel,” he said. While it was relative calm in the Evans’ camp, Rovanpera was counting his blessings after tapping the right rear wheel on his Yaris against a large rock. From that point on, aware he was lucky to still be at the races, he opted for a “nothing special” approach, choosing instead to get around safely and return to service where his car could be checked over.

In third, despite preparations for his home round of the World Rally Championship being short of satisfactory, was Tanak. 20.5 seconds off Evans’ pace, he tinkered with his I20 N Rally1 in what was a case of one step forward, two step backwards for the 2019 World Champion. He ended up having to fight with his car, the knock-on effect being “we are not driving very fast”.

To add insult to injury, he was handed a 10 second time penalty for failing to switch to battery mode during a designated electric-only zone on the event. The infringement occurred en route to the first time control on Thursday and the punishment was meted out after a stewards’ hearing this morning.

Tanak’s team-mate Thierry Neuville was another desperate to find the sweet spot on the ride and handling front – a consequence of him having little to no confidence with the rear balance in the opening miles. However, he went too far stiffening up the suspension for the deciding test before service and with braking grip affected as a direct result, the Belgian overshot at a hairpin right.

Another driver in trouble was Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi. This time, it was brake-related. When he pressed on the middle pedal the pads seemingly failed to bite into the discs, leaving him at a loss. “I cannot explain,” was his frank and honest assessment of the situation, although his speed was still good enough to keep him fifth, one spot ahead of top M-Sport Ford driver Adrien Fourmaux.

The Frenchman was the top Blue Oval representative following an earlier accident on stage four involving team-mate Craig Breen. Nine miles through the 13-mile ‘Raanista’ test, the Irishman ran wide at a left-hander and ended up in the grass where the front left wheel hit a hidden concrete post. Tipped to go well on Estonia's high-speed gravel roads was Takamoto Katusta, but a lacklustre start left the Japanese star down in seventh, albeit with 2.7 seconds in hand over a seemingly out of sorts Gus Greensmith.

Evans continued to steamroll the opposition after the longer than usual service halt on SS6 before Rovanpera finally ended his run of stage wins with a scratch time of his own and he repeated the trick on the next run despite having "no grip" to finish the day strongly on the closing 3.72-mile test to keep the pressure on Evans. "The afternoon was good," he said. "I was happy that we could use our starting position a bit better and start to push a bit more when we had the grip. It will be interesting to see what happens to the guys behind."

No sooner had Rovanpera said those words than the split times showed Evans had lost top spot and was haemorrhaging time hand over fist. At stage end, the Welshman offered an abridged explanation as to what exactly had happened. "I think you can see what the story is," he said. "We were in the bushes right at the start, so after that it was a case of making sure we got through. There's nothing you can do when the conditions are like that."

Tanak continued to lose ground to the top two in the afternoon, with his woes compounded on the day's last stage when the pipe that channels warm air onto the windscreen to stop it from misting up came loose. The Estonian resorted to stretching his right leg around the handbrake to reposition the pipe and hold it in place with his right foot. Despite this, he dropped 23 seconds.

He still has a comfortable buffer to fourth-placed Lappi who was much happier with the pace he showed once the brake issues on his GR Yaris Rally1 car were resolved. The same couldn't be said for Neuville as his struggles trying to set-up his car continued. He was more than two seconds a kilometre slower than his Rally1 rivals on the last Friday test. "I don't know if we can change a lot. We are a bit stuck with what we have at the moment," he said. "The target is to keep close to the podium and see what happens at the front. It's part of the game."

Fourmaux, Katsuta and Greensmith all gained a place on the last stage following a two-minute indiscretion by Loubet that left his Puma Rally1 on its side, in a ditch. Luckily, it was a slow-speed accident and spectators managed to get the car back on its four wheels again. "I don't know why - I completely lost grip. It was very strange," said the young Frenchman at the end.