The Welshman had trailed Sebastien Ogier by 6.5 seconds following this morning’s first four mountain stages before the leading pair traded places when the action switched to Monza circuit after lunch.

It was a day of contrasting fortunes for Evans who wasn’t at his best on the closed-roads north of Bergamo only to find an extra gear around the famous ‘Cathedral of Speed’ a few hours later.

The turning point came on SS5 as Evans moved to within eight tenths of a second of Ogier who, it later emerged, had driven most of 'Cinturato 1' with the brakes on his Yaris World Rally Car not functioning.

Evans built on his new-found momentum alongside Scott Martin on the day’s penultimate test to topple the current champion and open up a slender 1.3 second buffer. He added another tenth before returning to service for the overnight halt.

“It has been a good day at the track,” admitted Evans, “so I am quite happy about that, but I have some work to do ahead of the mountain stages tomorrow.”

While Ogier may be tempted to retaliate on Saturday, he knows a second – or even third – place result is more than enough to retain his WRC title and win it for an eighth time before stepping down as a full-time driver in the series.

“It has been a good start to the rally – I can be happy with today,” said Ogier. “We had a good drive this morning in the mountains, this afternoon we had a little issue and, of course, I took it a little bit easy here. I didn’t want to take any risks with the chicane or anything.”

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville is the closest challenger to the top two but despite repeatedly admitting he was driving at ten tenths throughout the day, he was at a loss to explain why he wasn’t faster – or closer – in his bid to make it back-to-back wins this season.

Besides set-up woes, the Belgian complained of braking issues on steep downhills sections, chiefly on this morning’s mountain stages. He reckoned carrying two spares was the issue. A software glitch on SS5 that affected the car's gearbox also pegged him back.

"We have struggled to find some more speed from the car. I don't know why because the feeling was good," he said at the end of SS7. "It's strange and it makes it difficult to improve for tomorrow."

That could open the door to Dani Sordo who capped off a solid day's work by going fastest on the final Friday stage to slash Neuville's advantage to just 3 seconds.

Further back and a nice battle is brewing between Oliver Solberg and Takamoto Katsuta in fifth and sixth places. They are separated by 14.9 seconds, and M-Sport Ford's Gus Greensith is not too far behind in seventh should either two slip up.