Esapekka Lappi is the driver to beat on Rally Mexico, the factory Hyundai man taking on and outgunning the event's six-time winner Sebastien Ogier to lead by 5.3s after 10 stages.
Lappi and Ogier have engaged in a thrilling battle throughout Friday's mainly gravel stages with Lappi taking five wins to Ogier's two.
But while Lappi leads round three of the World Rally Championship heading into Saturday's third leg, works Toyota pilot Ogier remains firmly in striking distance after a day when neither driver pushed completely to the limit to avoid taking too many risks on the rock-lined roads.
“I hoped I could fight on the top but to be leading and to be fighting all the time against Seb, this was not in my mind to be honest,” said Lappi, a new addition to the Hyundai line-up for 2023.
“I was confident our pace would be good, I'm a bit surprised [to be leading] but I will take it as it is, it's probably one of the best days of my career.”
Stan Sport is the only play to watch every round of WRC with all the action streaming ad-free, live and on demand.
Lappi, starting sixth on the road, one place behind Ogier, edged the Frenchman to the fastest time on SS3 – Friday's first stage – by 0.3s to move into the overall lead by 1.2s.
Ogier was quicker than Lappi on SS4 by 0.4s to cut his former team-mate's advantage to 0.8s before Lappi took his turn to set the pace on SS5, a performance that put him 1.4s ahead at the midday halt.
Lappi was quickest again by 0.8s on SS6 to extend his lead to 2.2s, only for Ogier to hit back on SS7 by 1.9s, which narrowed Lappi's lead to 0.3s.
By winning SS8 with a 3.1s margin over Ogier, Lappi increased his gap to 3.4s. And it would get better for the Finn when he went 3.5s quicker than Ogier through SS9 to grow his margin to 6.9s with just the day-closing 1.3-kilometre test close to the service park.
Ogier was equal third quickest on the all-Tarmac stage to close to within 5.3s of Lappi, who was seventh fastest.
Elfyn Evans is more than half a minute behind Lappi in third with Thierry Neuville 9.7s down on the Toyota-driving Brit in fourth, followed by world champion Kalle Rovanpera, who has been running second on the road throughout Friday's stages.
Like Neuville, Rovanpera was slowed by a hybrid issue caused by hitting a compression on SS4, while Neuville also reported a right-rear damper fault and a troublesome front-left driveshaft.
Dani Sordo was fourth in the third works Hyundai after six stages, but a hefty left-rear impact caused a puncture, delayed him by more than one minute through SS7 and led to his i20 N Rally1 filling with dust.
Having gone fastest on both passes of Thursday's Guanajuato street stage, Ott Tanak was doing his utmost to minimise losing too much time running first on the loose-surface gravel tests.
Things were going roughly to plan for the overnight leader until he hit 15.8 kilometres of Friday's opening 29.07-kilometre El Chocolate stage.
That's where a turbo glitch struck the Estonian's Ford Puma Rally1 and almost eight minutes were lost while Tanak limped to the end of the run.
With two stages to go until service in Leon, Tanak was more than 12 minutes off the lead when his M-Sport mechanics got to work on restoring the once fast Ford to full working order. Tanak would then elude to other “issues” during the afternoon loop but wouldn't go into specifics when quizzed afterwards.
“It was quite a struggle in the car [clearing the road] and the issue came like instant, I didn't feel anything going slowly before, it just switched off,” the 2019 world champion said of his early turbo problem.
“I hoped at least it was just a loose pipe but as I saw this wasn't the case I knew it was quite s***. I would say without hybrid support in places I knew it wouldn't be possible, we were lucky to have some extra support, but we lost 12 minutes.”
The first visit to El Chocolate was the scene of more misery for M-Sport as Tanak's team-mates Pierre-Louis Loubet and Jourdan Serderidis both parked their Pumas with bust suspension, Serderidis blocking the road to the extent the stage was canned for those behind.
On his Rally Mexico debut, Takamoto Katsuta made it through El Chocolate with the seventh fastest time before going sixth quickest on Ortega. But the Japanese Toyota driver would get no further than 8.4 kilometes of Las Minas after he lost the rear of his Yaris in a fast section and charged down a bank into retirement.
Gus Greensmith leads Adrien Fourmaux by 8.5s on his return to the WRC2 category in seventh overall. Emil Lindholm heads Kajetan Kajetanowicz in the battle for the final class podium and ninth place, while a spin and a puncture delayed Olivier Solberg.
The first of two passes of the 14.82-kilometre Ibarrilla stage is up first from 08h13 local time on Saturday. At 126.52 kilometres, the rally's longest leg features nine stages.