Thierry Neuville set a stunning stage two time to take a 19.1 seconds overnight lead on Rallye Monte Carlo.
The Belgian was 25.5 seconds quicker than anyone on the treacherous Bayons – Bréziers test despite having a similar tyre selection to his championship rivals Sebastien Ogier and Ott Tänak.
Six-time champion Ogier did win the opening stage of the night ahead of Tänak on his debut for Toyota and also came closest of anyone to matching Neuville’s superb time on SS2.
Tänak is third going into Friday, and sits just 0.3 seconds ahead of Elfyn Evans, with the Welshman setting a pair of very competitive times. Sebastien Loeb completes the top five overall.
It was a night to forget for M-Sport Ford, as three of their four cars hit problems – Teemu Suninen retired on stage two with transmission problems, while Esapekka Lappi and Gus Greensmith both suffered from overheating problems on the opening test with leaves stuck in the front grills of the Fiesta WRC’s.
Young Brit Greensmith also suffered more drama on the next stage, and he limped out of Thursday evening with a turbo issue on the Fiesta’s engine, although did make it back to service.
Lappi holds sixth going into Friday, with Kalle Rovanperä taking a cautious approach on his WRC debut in seventh. He leads WRC3’s Eric Camilli, WRC2’s fastest man Mads Østberg and Stéphane Sarrazin, who completes the top 10 overall.
Adrien Fourmaux had been leading WRC2 for M-Sport, although reportedly spun and dropped to the bottom of the class leaderboard as a result. Østberg has 21.7 seconds lead ahead of Ole Christian Veiby while Camilli leads Sarrazin by 21.0 seconds in WRC3.
Day two of Rallye Monte Carlo features six more stages totalling 122.58km.