Rovanperä a close third.
Elfyn Evans headed Thierry Neuville by the narrowest of margins as Friday’s brutal opening leg cut holes through the field at FORUM8 Rally Japan.
Just 3.0sec split the pair after the first full day of action on technical mountain roads around Aichi, with Evans’ GR Yaris holding strong on the home soil of his Toyota Gazoo Racing squad.
Japan is back on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar for the first time since 2010 and the all-new asphalt event has already claimed the scalps of multiple frontline drivers. Dani Sordo’s Hyundai i20 N was the first to go - his car reduced to a sorry-looking shell after catching fire in the opener.
Sordo’s drama resulted in a shortened morning loop, with the first pass of Inabu Dam cancelled due to delays. After two stages Evans and Neuville were level pegging as they returned to mid-leg service in the Toyota Stadium.
The second run through Shitara Town (SS7) was also culled owing to the barrier damage Craig Breen’s Ford Puma caused when he understeered into retirement. But Evans had found his rhythm and used the remaining two stretches to his advantage.
A benchmark time at Isegami’s Tunnel moved the Welshman 1.1sec clear of his Hyundai rival and he repeated that feat in the closing test to consolidate his position. Still, Evans - who is yet to win a rally this year - felt there was room for improvement.
"It's been tough and quite short," he reflected. “We're only four stages down but it's still not been easy.
"The stages are very demanding and there's a different feeling in all of them - you're always wanting something different from the car. Tomorrow is more of the same and it's going to be changeable," he added.
Kalle Rovanperä briefly led despite being alarmed by smoke entering his car’s cockpit in the opener, but the Finn’s pace began to dwindle as he wrestled with understeer which overheated the front tyres. Still, he made it two Toyota cars in the top three, trailing Neuville by just 2.1sec.
It was a mediocre first day for Ott Tänak on his final rally with Hyundai Motorsport. A differential niggle slowed the Estonian early in the day but the issue was cured at service, enabling him to end 8.8sec back from the podium in fourth.
Hometown hero Takamoto Katsuta was another man struggling with understeer although his confidence did start to blossom with each stage that passed. Laying 20.6sec back from the lead, a strong result is still within reach for the Toyota driver.
More than a minute back was Gus Greensmith in the only remaining Ford. His day was far from drama-free and the Briton nursed a broken driveshaft throughout the morning. Thursday night leader Sébastien Ogier was also in trouble and languished 2min 49.8sec off the pace after stopping to change a wheel in SS2.
Support category cars dominated the latter half of the leaderboard with WRC2 rookie Sami Pajari heading up WRC2 in seventh overall ahead of Teemu Suninen. Emil Lindholm holds ninth overall and is on course to clinch the championship crown after his main title rival Kajetan Kajetanowicz crashed, while Ogier capped off the top ten.
Saturday boasts eight more gruelling stages. Nukata Forest (20.56km) and Lake Mikawako (14.74km) are driven morning and afternoon while a single run through Shinshiro City (7.08km) rounds off the morning loop. Double runs of the fan-favourite Okazaki City SSS (1.40km) bring the day to a close.
Leading positions after Friday:
1. E Evans / S Martin GBR Toyota GR Yaris 57min 18.8sec
2. T Neuville / M Wydaeghe BEL Hyundai i20 N +3.0sec
3. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota GR Yaris +5.1sec
4. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 N +13.9sec
5. T Katsuta / A Johnston JPN Toyota GR Yaris +20.6sec
6. G Greensmith / J Andersson GBR Ford Puma +2min 0.4sec