Rock-strewn gravel roads wrecked the hopes of many frontrunners, but Welshman Evans prospered to win six consecutive speed tests in his Ford Fiesta and lead the similar car of Mads Østberg by 55.7sec.
FIA World Rally Championship leader Sébastien Ogier’s slender lead after Thursday’s curtain-raising street test in Cordoba was wiped out by Evans once the rally hit gravel roads on Friday morning in the Calamuchita Valley.
Evans won all four morning special stages to lead Jari-Matti Latvala by 30sec at mid-leg service. Two more wins, one shared with Hayden Paddon, stretched his advantage as Norwegian Østberg came through to grab second on his return after a two-round absence.
“It was pretty tough at times, but we can be happy with today,” said Evans. “We have to remember there’s a very long way to go tomorrow and Sunday is a tough day too. We have to carry on in the morning like today didn’t happen.”
Østberg’s patient strategy paid dividends. Like Evans, a low start position offered cleaner and faster roads and he avoided the rocks to climb the order, despite brake problems which induced small mistakes late on.
A fierce four-car fight for the final podium place ended with Thierry Neuville in third. A broken front damper and a puncture delayed the Belgian, who struggled further when dust found its way into his holed Hyundai i20 Coupe and into his eyes. He was 5.0sec behind Østberg.
Road opener Ogier struggled in the dry conditions. He slid into a ditch early on and later bent his Ford Fiesta’s steering after landing on a rock after a crest. He was 6.0sec behind Neuville and 4.6sec ahead of team-mate Ott Tänak, who punctured in the penultimate test.
Despite his Toyota Yaris bottoming out on the rough tracks, Latvala held second until the engine overheated and dropped him a place. A penultimate stage puncture cost a further 30sec and the Finn plunged to sixth.
It was a disastrous day for Citroën C3 drivers Kris Meeke and Craig Breen. Meeke was second until caught out by a bump, which launched his car into the scenery. It was heavily damaged and he retired. Breen’s C3 jammed in fifth gear and he too was sidelined.
Meanwhile, Dani Sordo plunged down the order from third after hitting a rock and breaking his i20’s steering arm.
Competitors journey north-west of the rally base of Villa Carlos Paz on Saturday for the longest leg of the event amid stunning pampas scenery. They face two identical loops of three stages covering 160km.