Mikko Hirvonen leads the Rally of Portugal by 36.3 seconds over Evgeny Novikov after a bizarre first loop of Friday stages.
Thick fog, heavy rain and very muddy stages led to carnage throughout the leaderboard, headlined by Ford teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg crashing out of the lead on consecutive stages.
The duo had started the day first and second, and looking good to turn the team's title bid around following Sebastien Loeb's Thursday night crash. But first Latvala slid off the road and down a bank on SS5, then Solberg – who had inherited the lead – did likewise on SS6. That left Hirvonen up front in the remaining works Citroen. Despite losing 12 seconds to the charging Novikov (M-Sport Ford) on SS7, Hirvonen said he just wanted to stick to his own pace.
"It was very, very foggy and very, very muddy as well, and you cannot even believe how slowly we are driving - but it's so slippy that if there's one corner you don't get right, it's over. I don't want to take any risks," he said.
Despite some intercom problems, Novikov took second from Mads Ostberg on SS7, to the Norwegian's surprise, although Ostberg was also suffering with a puncture. The two Fords are now five seconds apart in second and third.
Patrik Sandell has stayed out of trouble and moved up from 11th to fourth in the Prodrive Mini, with Martin Prokop (Czech Ford) and Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar Citroen) doing likewise to appear in surprise top six positions. Prokop benefited from running second on the road to go second quickest on SS5 and SS6.
Jari Ketomaa was up to fifth in the DMACK-shod Autotek Ford, but then an engine problem cost him several minutes and saw him tumble to 10th.
All three stages in the loop were won by Dani Sordo. The Prodrive Mini is running first on the road – ideal in the conditions – having retired with electrical problems last night. Despite being a full minute quicker than almost everyone else on stages five and six, Sordo is still only 13th overall due to his Rally 2 penalties.
Ott Tanak (M-Sport Ford) and Thierry Neuville (Citroen Junior) started the day fourth and fifth but were also among the victims of the conditions, which were instrumental in causing multiple cars to either slide off the road or struggle with electrical problems due to deep and unexpected watersplashes.
Leading positions after SS7:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen 1h20m01.7s
2. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford + 36.3s
3. Mads Ostberg Adapta Ford + 41.8s
4. Patrik Sandell Prodrive Mini + 3m07.2s
5. Martin Prokop Czech Ford + 3m25.8s
6. Nasser Al-Attiyah Qatar Citroen + 3m46.9s
7. Peter van Merksteijn Jr van Merksteijn Citroen + 3m50.8s
8. Dennis Kuipers M-Sport Ford + 4m41.1s
9. Sebastien Ogier VW Skoda + 5m45.1s
10. Jari Ketomaa Autotek Ford + 5m52.3s