Sebastien Loeb's recent run of disasters continued on the first morning of the Rally Poland as the World Champion had an accident on SS4.
His main title rival Mikko Hirvonen now leads the rally, and will take the championship lead if he finishes first or second.
The duo had been enjoying an extremely close battle for the lead around the very fast Polish stages this morning, with Loeb ahead by half a second after SS2, then Hirvonen hitting the front with a tiny 0.3sec margin after the next stage.
But Hirvonen was then handed a big opportunity when Loeb stopped early in the following Paprotki stage, with the crews behind reporting that the Citroen had crashed. Both Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena were unhurt.
"I saw Sebastien was off the road," said Hirvonen. "It looks like he's rolled, but it didn't look too bad. After that I took it very, very steady because I didn't want to make the same mistake. Very strange."
The stage became even better for Ford as Hirvonen's team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala proceeded to set the fastest time and move up to second, just 2.4sec behind his countryman. Dani Sordo, now the factory Citroen team's only hope for victory, has slipped away in third place and is 14.7sec off the lead.
Evgeny Novikov should have moved up to an amazing fourth in the Citroen Junior car following Loeb's accident, but the Russian completed stage four with severe front end damage after a high speed trip off the road that is set to end his day.
"Just had a big off over a crest near the end of the stage," said Novikov's co-driver Dale Moscatt. "I'm not sure there's much we can do about it."
That handed fourth to the enormously impressive Andreas Mikkelsen, who has returned to the championship for a one-off appearance in a Skoda Fabia. He was amazed to find himself in the top four at the end of the first loop.
"I thought I was missing a little bit of engine power, but on the start it was very, very narrow, so I tried to take some time back there," said Mikkelsen.
Having led following last night's superspecial, Petter Solberg found his outdated Citroen Xsara no match for the frontrunners on the full-length stages and has fallen back to fifth.
"I'm trying hard and taking some risks, but I can't keep the speed up where it's fast and narrow," said the former champion. He regained one position when Sebastien Ogier (Citroen Junior) spun back to sixth on SS4.
Stobart Ford duo Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson are seventh and eighth, but their temporary team-mate local hero Krzysztof Holowczyc was between them until he too had a spin on Paprotki and fell back to 11th.
Mads Ostberg's rally got off to a difficult start when he was forced to stop on SS2 and remove debris from the front of his Adapta Subaru to try and prevent overheating, and things improved little in the following stages. He is already nearly two minutes off the lead in 12th.
"We were forced to stop on the first stage, the second stage was okay, and now I'm struggling a lot with the handling of the car," said Ostberg.
"The first section was very loose and I had a spin somewhere and lost maybe 20s. It's really difficult and I'm really disappointed. I don't recognise the car from Greece."Leading positions after SS4:
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 32m19.5s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 2.4s
3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 14.7s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen Skoda + 34.1s
5. Petter Solberg Citroen + 40.0s
6. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 51.6s
7. Henning Solberg Ford + 53.9s
8. Matthew Wilson Ford + 58.6s
9. Evgeny Novikov Citroen + 59.0s
10. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen +1m15.1s