(Reuters) - M-Sport Ford's Ott Tanak got his tyre strategy right to lead the first day of Rally Chile on Friday, 4.2 seconds clear of Hyundai's Teemu Suninen.
The Estonian set the pace in the day's opening stage before falling back with minor suspension damage and then reclaiming the top spot in the afternoon loop of stages as the only frontrunning driver exclusively on soft tyres.
"The first one (stage) and the last one were extremely tough," he said.
Toyota's title contender Elfyn Evans was in third place, 8.5 seconds behind Suninen, with Hyundai's Thierry Neuville fourth and Toyota's championship leader and reigning champion Kalle Rovanpera fifth.
Evans is second overall but 33 points adrift of Rovanpera in the standings and needs to finish at least eighth to keep the title battle open with two rounds remaining.
Hyundai's Esapekka Lappi and M-Sport Ford's Pierre-Louis Loubet both rolled their cars heavily and were unlikely to restart on Saturday.
Luxembourg's Gregoire Munster was seventh in a Ford despite his co-driver Louis Luka leaving the pace notes in his hotel bedroom and having to read them from pictures sent by the M-Sport team to his mobile phone.
The Concepcion-based gravel event was returning to the calendar for the first time since 2019.
Saturday's second leg includes the longest stage and finishes within sight of the Pacific ocean.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar)