Stephane Sarrazin and Bryan Bouffier will embark on the final leg of Giru di Corsica-Tour de Corse just 1.7 seconds apart following a thrilling start to the FIA 2014 European Rally Championship season-closer.

Sarrazin set the pace on Friday's opening leg and shared the fastest time with Bouffier - in an identical Ford Fiesta RRC - on stage two despite slowing to avoid a cow that had wandered in to the road.

Bouffier went quickest outright on stage three to snatch the lead but his advantage out front was only fleeting after a damaged tyre cost him some 17s on stage four and handed the initiative back to Sarrazin.

Bouffier then went on full attack mode to make up the lost time and fought back into contention with fastest times on stages five and six. But it's Sarrazin he will head to the overnight halt in Ajaccio leading the rally.

"It was a good battle with Bouffier today," said Sarrazin. "I went with the soft tyre on the second loop and I think it was a mistake. We continue to enjoy and make a big push."

Bouffier, last year's Corsica winner, said: "I am happy to be here after a very good time on stage five. I am doing the best race as possible. Tomorrow will be really tough and we have to stay concentrated."

Kevin Abbring is the leading Peugeot 208T16 contender in third after Peugeot Rally Academy team-mate Craig Breen retired his similar car with transmission failure after four stages.

Esapekka Lappi, who cannot be caught in the ERC title race, was up to third but crashed out on Friday's final test. That means young Frenchman Eric Camilli is in an impressive fourth, despite nursing an exhaust issue for much of the leg, with Julien Maurin and Romain Dumas completing the top six.

Maurin, who was running first on the road, lost time with a brace of punctures on his Fiesta R5, while Dumas conceded his rear-wheel-drive Porsche 997 RGT proved difficult to handle on the endless tight turns and hairpin bends compared to the cars of his rivals. Portugal's Bruno Magalhaes is seventh for the Delta Rally team with Jaromir Tarabus eighth, local hero Jean-Mathieu Leandri ninth and fellow Corsican Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi completing the top 10 and leading ERC 2WD in his Renault Clio R3.

ERC Production Car Cup pacesetter Keith Cronin is 11th on his debut in JRM's Subaru WRX STI. Title chasers Martin Hudec and Vitaliy Pushkar are second and third in class respectively.

Andrea Crugnola heads Fabio Andolfi in ERC Junior with his title rival Stephane Lefebvre one place behind in third. Gino Bux is fourth in class after early brake problems. Aleks Zawada retired on the opening stage with a broken engine. Florin Tincescu crashed out on stage two.

It was a frustrating start to the event for Kajetan Kajetanowicz, whose LOTOS Rally Team Fiesta R5 suffered a broken driveshaft on the opening test. Although the Pole was able to complete the run following a delay, he would be forced to retire on the road section heading to stage two. Robert Consani was in the top 10 when he went off the road on stage six.

The event now concludes on Saturday, with the final leg based around Ajaccio and featuring five stages over a competitive distance of 116.16 kilometres. The action gets underway with the 28.26-kilometre Acqua Doria-Bellevalle stage at 08:18hrs local time.