Sebastien Ogier leads Rally Australia after Saturday's penultimate leg to set up a thrilling finale with 2.6 seconds covering the top three.
Ogier snatched the lead from Kris Meeke in the dusty and dark final speed test to head the Ulsterman by just three-tenths of a second, with Jari-Matti Latvala a further 2.3sec behind after a titanic day-long battle.
Victory in this tenth round of the FIA World Rally Championship tomorrow would secure a third consecutive world title for Ogier.
Meeke snatched the lead from Latvala in the marathon 50.80km Nambucca test which opened today’s action in New South Wales. Ogier, who had the worst conditions of the top drivers on the slippery gravel roads, was fourth after that stage in his Volkswagen Polo R.
But when the two morning stages were repeated on cleaner and faster roads, the Frenchman won both and overturned a 2.4sec deficit in the final test.
“I’m really happy of course – I did not expect to be in the lead tonight,” said Ogier. “Now I’m looking forward to tomorrow and the fight resuming. There is a very small gap to Kris and even Jari-Matti, so everything is still open. At least tomorrow I will start at the back of the field together with them and we will have pretty similar conditions.”
Meeke gambled on soft compound tyres for Citroën’s DS 3 in the opening Nambucca. Although his pace was sufficient to demote Latvala from the lead, he was disappointed not to have taken more time from his rivals with the advantage of a better road position.
Latvala was uncomfortable in both passes through the test and ran wide in the final stage, the Finn admitting he must be more consistent tomorrow to deny team-mate Ogier.
Andreas Mikkelsen was fourth in another Polo R. The Norwegian was 9.1sec off the lead and survived a bizarre incident when his baseball cap landed in the footwell after being dislodged from the back of the car following a heavy landing.
Hayden Paddon vaulted into contention when he won both morning stages, having diagnosed a differential problem on his Hyundai i20 last night. However, gearshift problems and worn tyres left the Kiwi 19.4sec from the lead in fifth.
Ott Tänak climbed from eighth to sixth in his Ford Fiesta RS and Thierry Neuville came out on top of an intra-team fight with Dani Sordo to hold seventh. Sordo, who led yesterday morning, lost time with brake problems.
A despondent Elfyn Evans was ninth, his lack of confidence not helped by a massive sixth gear incident in the final stage which cost almost 20sec. WRC 2 leader Nasser Al-Attiyah completed the leaderboard after Lorenzo Bertelli retired his Fiesta RS with engine problems.
Sunday’s final leg restarts at 07.10 (local) and contains five stages and 68.76km of action. It ends with the 9.23km live TV Power Stage through Wedding Bells, with bonus points to the fastest three drivers.