But another fastest time on the final special stage propelled the Scottish flier to within 42 seconds of third place. Fellow Briton Richard Burns is 10th overall for Subaru.
McRae, though, is racing under appeal and could lose any points gained if that appeal fails when it is heard by FIA, the sport's world governing body, in the next few weeks. The water pump on the Ford Focus was deemed illegal just hours before the rally start last Sunday.
McRae said before the rally he hoped for a podium finish, but even he could not have expected doing so on his first rally for the team. But McRae, who set his first fastest times in the final two stages, raised that possibility as he closed in on the Subaru of the four-times world champion, Juha Kankkunen.
He saved his best until last as he went through the 12-mile section as the drivers headed back to Monte Carlo in 15.22 seconds, though it was close with Frenchman Didier Auriol little two seconds slower.
With over a minute in hand on his closest challenger McRae, barring an accident in today's final four special stages, should claim at least three points - although he could lose them at the appeal. The 1995 world champion had moved up to fourth place after the first timed section. At the same stage on Monday he was 14th.
McRae dropped back one place on the next stage, the longest of the day at 22 miles, after gambling on slick tyres over the French Alps to carry out testing on the car.
But, despite complaining of snow patches deliberately put on the road by spectators, he kept his cool after around 12 hours behind the wheel to regain fourth place. Makinen, though, looks set to launch his campaign for a fourth successive title by becoming the first Finnish winner in Monte Carlo since 1986 after establishing a comfortable cushion of 1min 45sec.
The Mitsubishi driver regained the lead on the third of the five special stages and pressed home the advantage as overnight pacesetter Gilles Panizzi spun his Subaru a couple of times. Burns started and finished the day in 10th place in the works Subaru.Reuse content