Ogier – with Benjamin Veillas on the notes – increased his overall advantage on the second run through ‘Saint-Geniez – Thoard’ by 16.1 seconds to lead nine-time WRC winner Loeb by 21.1 seconds.

The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver admitted the difference had been the decision to switch his two studded tyres for slicks having observed Loeb do this prior to the 20.79km test going live.

“I was planning to go with the snow tyre to be honest – it was probably the safest option and we can see Kalle [Rovanpera, stage winner] was fastest,” said Ogier, “but I saw Seb was going for slicks, so we quickly changed, last-minute before the start, just to be the same. It was more challenging in places but more fun.”

Loeb – who has expressed a desire to start more WRC rounds in the Puma Rally1 car with M-Sport Ford beyond this weekend's season opener – conceded that bridging the gap to the defending champion “is now a bit far”. He added: “We had a clear stage but on the slicks it was easy to make a mistake – but we are here.”

Ogier moved back in front of overnight leader Loeb on today’s third test – ‘Saint-Geniez – Thoard 1’ – despite telling the media on Friday evening how difficult it would be to match the Ford driver’s pace.

Craig Breen climbed his way up from fifth to third by the close of play, his progress aided by Thierry Neuville's Hyundai I20 N suffering front-right damper damage - a failure that cost him 19.5 seconds.

The 31-year-old Irishman was another place on the next stage, this time as a result of Elfyn Evans misjudging his braking on a narrow left-hander that led to his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 car ending up on a steep slope.

Given the supermini’s precarious position on the outside of the corner, the test was red flagged by organisers before spectators came to Evans’ and co-driver Scott Martin’s rescue by hauling them up and onto the road.

Another beneficiary of these dramas was Toyota's Kalle Rovanpera; twelfth at the end of Thursday night and with his hopes of a points finish looking remote, the young Finn now finds himself in fourth thanks to some smart set-up changes to his Yaris supermini.

"It has been quite a big change from two days ago," he said. "Now it's starting to be a bit enjoyable in the car and it's getting better all the time, so I can be happier."

Gus Greensmith rounds out the top five places despite his Puma Rally1 car picking up a misfire, leading the Brit to nurse his car, "especially over big bumps and stuff". More than a minute separates him and Neuville, who succeeded in making it to the end of the day by performing some running repairs on his car on the road section to the final stage.

Oliver Solberg's nightmare Rallye Monte Carlo continued on Saturday, meanwhile. He left the road on SS10 before spectactors came to his rescue and freed the talented Swede - but onlt after 30 minutes of blood, sweat and tears. Then, on the final stage, he punctured and hit a bank. “I just hope for a better day tomorrow,” he said.

As for Ott Tanak - Solberg's Hyundai team-mate - he had to retire after picking up a puncture on SS11. With efforts to seal the small hole on the sidewall of the rubber proving fruitless, and with no spare tyre in the boot to fall back on, the Estonian had to concede defeat.