Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville translated his rapid shakedown form from Wednesday evening into Thursday's Central European Rally stages with the Belgian on top of the order, albeit by a scant 1.2s margin.
Third fastest and 1.0s slower than Ott Tanak through the 2.99-kilometre opening stage – based at Prague's out-of-town horse racing venue – Neuville was quickest of all by 2.2s on the 8.92-kilometre Circuit of Klatovy run, to complete the first competitive action in the lead with Tanak second and Toyota's eight-time world champion Sebastien Ogier in third.
“It was not the greatest stage,” Neuville said after completing the damp but drying SS2 on a full set of soft-compound Pirellis. “I think it was in between the wet and the soft [tyres], and I decided to go to the soft at the very last moment. The anti-cut [devices] were reflecting from the light so we couldn't see very well, but we had a clean run through.”
M-Sport Ford driver Tanak, the Rally Chile winner, holds a 4.6s margin over Ogier, who reported not having “a good feeling” behind the wheel of his Toyota GR Yaris. He's 0.1s ahead of world title-chasing team-mate Kalle Rovanpera.
The Finn holds a 31-point margin over fellow Toyota driver Elfyn Evans in the title chase and can claim his second-consecutive WRC crown this weekend.
With Evans losing approximately five seconds during his overshoot on SS2, Rovanpera's prospects of becoming champion again received an early boost. His only title rivals Evans is down in eighth, 4.8s behind Rovanpera.
“It's been quite a tricky start to the rally for us,” Evans said. “The speed was okay [on the second stage] but I missed my braking point in quite a fast place and had an overshoot and lost quite a bit of time. It looks like it's going to be a challenging weekend ahead with the weather that's being forecast, and the stages have a lot of cuts and surface changes. Let's see how well we can cope with that tomorrow.”
Teemu Suninen, Takamoto Katsuta and Pierre-Louis Loubet are fifth, sixth and seventh respectively after two stages and are covered by a mere 2.1s. Esapekka Lappi is ninth, one place ahead of Gregoire Munster, who was delayed by a handbrake issue.
Lappi should have been closer to the leaders but was left to rue a jumped start on SS1, which earned the Hyundai driver a 10s penalty.
Meanwhile, Yohan Rossel heads Andreas Mikkelsen and Nikolay Gryazin in WRC2.
Earlier, Czech president Petr Pavel joined thousands of fans at the ceremonial start in Prague city centre. Robert Reid, the FIA's vice president for sport and the 2001 world champion co-driver, was also in attendance.
Having returned to the event's base in Passau, southern Germany on Thursday evening, crews will head back to Czech Republic on Friday for three repeated stages. There's no service halt during the day, just a tyre fitting zone. And with 121.80 timed kilometres in store, a tough day is in prospect for the crews.
The 13.66-kilometre Vlachovo Brezi stage is up first at 09h50 local time.