Valence - World champion Sebastien Loeb, aiming for a sixth Monte Carlo Rally title, was well on course for glory on Friday after the day's three specials left him clear of the pack in his Citroen.
Loeb had extended his lead over Spaniard Dani Sordo in a Mini to 2min 12sec with Petter Solberg more than 3min off the pace in his Ford Fiesta after poor tyre choice in the morning.
There was no such problem for Loeb, who came through everything the course could throw at him to set himself up for a likely victory.
"It was hard to make the right tyre choice this morning but for this one it was like a normal Tarmac stage. I was not taking any risks," the Frenchman said.
After the 13th special stage - the final one of the day ahead of a liaison stage back to Monaco from Valence - Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena had timed an overall 3hr 31:25.2 with Sordo and Norway's Solberg clinging on.
Finn Mikko Hirvonen was fourth at 3:43.0 with Russian Yevgeny Novikov another 45 sec further back.
Eight-time world champion Loeb has already bagged eight of the special stages to date with Hirvonen taking 12 and 13 in quick succession on Friday to stay in contention.
One each went to Jari-Matti Latvala - who slid out of the race after leaving the track on special stage four on Wednesday - Sordo and Solberg.
The untimely demise of Latvala's hopes, and also French hope Sebastien Ogier in special stage 10, have been a boon to Loeb in this the first race of the campaign which sees Monaco back in the world championship calendar after three years away on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge circuit.
Saturday sees four special stages in the Alpes-Maritimes in the French deep south prior to Sunday's power stage which brings down the curtain on the race.
Overall Positions after the Third Leg on Friday
1. Sébastien Loeb (France) Citroen 3:31:25.2
2. Daniel Sordo (Spain) Mini +2:12.4
3. Petter Solberg (Norway) Ford +3:19.2
4. Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) Citroen +3:43.0
5. Evgeny Novikov (Russia) Ford +4:28.2
6. Francois Delecour (France) Ford +6:39.1
7. Pierre Campana (France) Mini +7:45.1
8. Ott Tanak (Estonia) Ford +8:44.8
9. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Sweden) Proton +13:20.8
10. Armindo Araujo (Portugal) Mini +14:40.7