Mikko Hirvonen has been handed the Rally Australia lead after Sebastien Loeb backed off to ensure a better road position for the final day.
Dani Sordo raised his game this afternoon and is up to second between Hirvonen and Loeb, while Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Ogier have both lost ground following a puncture and an error respectively.
Having closed on leader Latvala throughout the morning, Loeb (Citroen) grabbed first position from the Ford driver on the second stage following service. Latvala then dropped to third behind team-mate Hirvonen on SS22 having admitted to a messy performance on the slippery stage, and lost a further 50 seconds when he damaged a tyre on the final stage on the loop.
"We got a puncture and it's so fast, once the tyre breaks, it breaks the whole rear right corner," said Latvala, who is now down to fourth. "But I think we can fix that. There shouldn't be any other damage."
Loeb therefore took an 11sec lead over Hirvonen into SS23, the stage which set the running order for the final day, and was on course to pull further away until he slowed and deliberately dropped 20sec to gain a better road position for Sunday, when the roads are expected to be very dusty.
"I had to do it. I don't like it," Loeb insisted. "It was a hundred times better when the running order was reversed on the second and third days so we just had to push and not care about this. But in my position we would have had no chance [to win] cleaning the road, so we had to do it."
Meanwhile his team-mate Sordo had been rapidly closing on Hirvonen and would also have passed the Ford had he not slowed to fall into second place.
"It's been a very, very good day," said Sordo. "I was pushing very hard in that stage, really, really hard. I enjoyed it a lot. Then I saw the time of Mikko and I slowed down to go after him tomorrow. I'm happy, but we need to continue like this."
The tactics left Hirvonen in the lead by 2sec over Sordo and 4sec over Loeb. With this evening's two runs around the asphalt Tweed superspecial - where the Citroens have been quicker than the Fords all weekend - still to come, the French team could yet regain the lead and still have better road positions than Hirvonen, for the running order is set on the last full stage (rather than superspecial) of each leg.
Even before the Citroens had slowed, Hirvonen was already unhappy with his times.
"It's the same for everybody, but it's so slippery," he said at the end of SS23. "I was going all over the place and made lots of small mistakes. It wasn't a good drive, not at all."
Ogier (Citroen Junior) had stayed in touch with the leaders until SS22, when he went off the road near the finish. The car sustained only cosmetic damage and he has been able to continue in fifth, 50.7sec behind Hirvonen.
Henning Solberg is still sixth, but his Stobart Ford teammate Matthew Wilson is now only 3sec behind. The Norwegian is struggling with the after-effects of his trip through a ditch this morning, including a painful finger injury.
"It's been OK but I broke my finger when I went off - I put it through the steering wheel," he explained. "I have big problems with it so I'll need to do something before tomorrow."
Leading positions after SS23:
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 1h48m50.0s
2. Dani Sordo Citroen + 2.0s
3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 4.1s
4. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 46.2s
5. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 50.7s
6. Henning Solberg Ford + 2m38.3s
7. Matthew Wilson Ford + 2m41.4s
8. Federico Villagra Ford + 3m58.9s
9. Hayden Paddon Mitsubishi + 8m55.6s
10. Martin Prokop Mitsubishi + 9m10.6s