Sebastien Ogier is just four speed tests away from a popular home WRC victory at Rally Monte-Carlo, but the Frenchman will need to hold his nerve in the finale after impressive Toyota debutant Ott Tanak kept him on his toes overnight.
Ogier and Tanak began leg three of the season curtain-raiser separated by just under 15 seconds. Although the Frenchman had more than doubled that advantage come day's end, the figures do not paint the full picture of a see-saw scrap that at one point saw him more than a minute clear.
The M-Sport man produced a virtuoso performance on the SS9 opener, maximising his favourable road position in treacherously snowy conditions to extend his lead over Tanak to 1min 18.4sec – but then the Estonian fought back.
Fastest on both SS10 and SS11 – notwithstanding an excursion into a field – by the time the cars headed back to evening service, the gap between the pair was just 33.5sec.
"Losing six seconds (to Tanak) on SS13 was what we had allowed for – I wanted to have at least 30 seconds in hand tonight, and that's what we have," reflected Ogier.
"We perhaps didn't make the perfect tyre choice for today's final stage – it was very dirty and we were a bit on the limit – but it's ok."
Tänak's Toyota team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala briefly flirted with second spot himself – closing to barely 20 seconds shy after SS9 – before falling away and settling into a solid and lonely third place. The Finn's cause was aided when Hyundai rival Dani Sordo crashed out of a podium position.
Latvala overhauled compatriot Esapekka Lappi in another Yaris as he moved up the order, with the younger Finn falling behind Britain's Kris Meeke when a mistake precipitated a puncture on SS11.
Lappi spent the remainder of the day playing catch-up, with his dogged determination paying off as he narrowly reclaimed fourth spot from his Citroen rival on the final stage (SS13).
Elfyn Evans sits sixth overnight as the Welshman continues to battle back from opening day misfortune in his Ford Fiesta, with Hyundai's similarly delayed Thierry Neuville recovering to seventh.
Bryan Bouffier has slipped to eighth ahead of Citroen's Craig Breen, who suffered for being the 'road-sweeper' through the snow of SS9. WRC 2 pace-setter Jan Kopecky completes the overall top 10.
Tongiht, crews will tackle two identical loops of two stages totalling 63.72km in the steep Alpes-Maritimes hills – including the legendary Col de Turini and the points-paying Power Stage – with no service break in-between.
To get the day's top sports stories in your inbox, sign up to our newsletter here