The evolution of frictional strength has great fundamental and practical importance. Applications range from earthquake dynamics1, 2, 3, 4 to hard-drive read/write cycles5. Frictional strength is governed by the resistance to shear of the large ensemble of discrete contacts that forms the interface that separates two sliding bodies. An interface’s overall strength is determined by both the real contact area and the contacts’ shear strength6, 7. Whereas the average motion of large, slowly sliding bodies is well-described by empirical friction laws3, 8, 9, 10, interface strength is a dynamic entity that is inherently related to both fast processes such as detachment/re-attachment11, 12, 13, 14 and the slow process of contact area rejuvenation6, 7, 13, 15, 16. Here we show how frictional strength evolves from extremely short to long timescales, by continuous measurements of the concurrent local evolution of the real contact area and the corresponding interface motion (slip) from the first microseconds when contact detachment occurs to large (100-second) timescales. We identify four distinct and inter-related phases of evolution. First, all of the local contact area reduction occurs within a few microseconds, on the passage of a crack-like front. This is followed by the onset of rapid slip over a characteristic time, the value of which suggests a fracture-induced reduction of contact strength before any slip occurs. This rapid slip phase culminates with a sharp transition to slip at velocities an order of magnitude slower. At slip arrest, ‘ageing’ immediately commences as contact area increases on a characteristic timescale determined by the system’s local memory of its effective contact time before slip arrest. We show how the singular logarithmic behaviour generally associated with ageing is cut off at short times16. These results provide a comprehensive picture of how frictional strength evolves from the short times and rapid slip velocities at the onset of motion to ageing at the long times following slip arrest.