Mikko Hirvonen has moved into a commanding position in the Acropolis Rally after a disastrous morning for Citroen, but Petter Solberg could still be a victory threat.
Ford driver Hirvonen had begun the day under pressure from Dani Sordo and Sebastien Loeb, and knowing that he would lose time running ahead of the two Citroens on the dusty roads.
But Loeb's charge ended just five miles into the day's action when he hit a stone at high speed and was launched into a series of rolls. Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena were uninjured, but their car was severely damaged and is out of the rally. Sordo continued to chase Hirvonen until SS9, when he came to a halt with damage to his suspension after four kilometres.
Hirvonen was immediately informed by the Ford team, but while he acknowledged that Citroen's troubles made his life easier, he has no plans to back off and duly won the stage.
"I pushed as hard as I could because Petter is also very fast and he's very close," said Hirvonen. "I'll try to keep a rhythm and keep going. It's definitely easier now with Sebastien and Sordo out, but there's still a long, long way to go and it's so rough in places that you could get a puncture anywhere."
Solberg had been closing on the leaders at a ferocious rate this morning, making the most of a better road position to reduce the gap to Hirvonen from 41.8 seconds to 24s on today's first two stages.
But he was then slowed by the officials on SS9 because Sordo's car had stopped in a dangerous position. He expects to be given a scratch time by the organizers and to remain second.
"We had to follow the rules - it's safety first," said Solberg. "We can still win, it depends on what happens on this afternoon. It's too bad to miss this stage because it would have been important while Mikko was cleaning. But that's how it is, safety first, and it's the correct thing to do."
The drama ahead has allowed Sebastien Ogier to move up to third for Citroen Junior. The Frenchman overhauled Henning Solberg, who also stopped with damage on SS9, at the start of the day and then gained two more places as the factory Citroens retired.
"It's good for us but the rally is still long," said Ogier. "We did some good times. Maybe we were a little too prudent because the tires are very good and we were prudent with this, but we're still here and that's important."
Mads Ostberg also made massive gains to finish the loop in fourth place for Adapta Subaru. He picked up four places on an "unbelievable" SS9 alone, where his second-fastest time launched him ahead of Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen Junior) and Federico Villagra (Munchi's Ford), and then Sordo and Solberg's retirements gave him another two places.
The recovering Jari-Matti Latvala, who was quickest on SS7 then escaped a tyre-damaging brush with the scenery right at the end of SS8, is already back up to fifth thanks to his own speed and the carnage ahead.
"It's been a very interesting morning," said the Ford driver, who led until going off the road on yesterday's last stage.
"I was very disappointed yesterday but I knew this day would be a hard day and things could happen. Now we need to concentrate and drive sensibly but also catch the guys in front. I took this stage a bit more steady because Henning and Sordo were off the road, so this wasn't the right stage to push."
Villagra and Rautenbach are now sixth and seventh, ahead of Evgeny Novikov. The Russian might have emulated Latvala's charge into the top five, having been fastest of all on SS8, had he not slowed on the following stage with a suspension issue.
"We had a problem with the front left damper, it's leaking a little bit and it's very difficult with the handling of the car," said the Citroen Junior driver. "So I was driving very carefully just to get to the service park."