Despite rain, mud and mist in the hills west of capital Zagreb, he won six of the eight asphalt speed tests in a Toyota GR Yaris to head a resilient Thierry Neuville by 1min 04.0sec.
FIA World Rally Championship leader Rovanperä thrived in the tricky conditions. He won three of the morning’s four special stages to lead by 47.5sec and stretched it during an equally dominant afternoon.
Having missed valuable experience when he crashed in the opening kilometres of Croatia’s WRC debut 12 months ago, the Finn expected to be at a disadvantage. But first in the start order helped as conditions progressively worsened as each car dragged mud onto the road.
Video: Croatia Rally SS1 - SS4
“Probably it was one of my best days in a rally car,” Rovanperä enthused. “It’s always nice to have a lead but it’s also difficult to have a big lead like this. Tomorrow is a long day so I still need to drive fast to keep concentrated.”
Neuville endured a topsy-turvy day. The Belgian completed the opening quartet of tests 12.5sec adrift, but a broken alternator belt in his Hyundai i20 N’s engine twice stopped the car en route to service.
Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe pushed the car the final 800m. The exhausted pair fell to the floor as they arrived four minutes late and a 40sec penalty demoted them to fourth. A spirited afternoon, including fastest time in the final stage, propelled them back to second.
They had 19.3sec in hand over team-mate Ott Tänak. The Estonian’s low start position hindered him, along with a penultimate stage puncture, but Tänak was content with third.
Despite overshooting a corner and narrowly missing a water hydrant, Craig Breen was fourth on his first time aboard a Ford Puma in the wet. The Irishman overnighted 11.9sec back.
Oliver Solberg was delayed by a spin and was fortunate to survive an impact in a water-filled corner en route to fifth in his i20 N. He was more than a minute adrift of Breen and 10.6sec clear of Evans, who denied Rovanperä a clean sweep of morning stage wins.
That was the Welshman’s only joy as two punctures on his GR Yaris cost valuable time. He was almost 40sec clear of the similar car of a low-on-confidence Takamoto Katsuta.
In worse trouble was Esapekka Lappi who retired his GR Yaris in the first stage after clipping a boulder and wrecking the front right corner.
Aside from Breen’s efforts it was a disappointing day for M-Sport Ford. Adrien Fourmaux went out after sliding his Puma through a hedge into a roadside garden, while both Pierre-Louis Loubet and Gus Greensmith exited when three punctures left them with no more usuable tyres onboard.
WRC2 leader Yohan Rossel was eighth with Nikolay Gryazin and Eric Camilli completing the leaderboard.
Saturday’s second leg follows a similar format. Four stages are driven morning and afternoon in the same territory, except for the penultimate test of each loop which heads further west towards the Adriatic coast city of Rijeka. The eight stages cover 116.98km.
• Full coverage from the Croatia Rally will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park