Mikko Hirvonen has pulled away from Sebastien Loeb during the second half of leg two in Sweden, and will start the deciding day with a 16sec lead.
The battle between the pair had been extremely close until this afternoon's loop of stages, when Loeb could not match Hirvonen's times and rapidly lost ground.
The top drivers were all planning their tire strategies in the expectation of extreme wear as the stages became rutted on the second pass. Hirvonen took new front tires before SS14, whereas Loeb waited until SS15 before switching his fronts. But it did not give him the performance he expected on the stage, as the Citroen driver struggled with the imbalance between his extremely worn rears and fresh fronts.
"In this one, I had good front tires but completely destroyed rears, and the car was undriveable," Loeb said after SS15. "I couldn't push, I just had to follow the road and it was impossible to attack. New tires at the front and completely destroyed at the rear is worse than having all four destroyed."
By the following Hagfors Sprint, Hirvonen's tires were also extremely battered, and he lost 6sec to Loeb on the short 1.9km stage. But he had built up enough cushion on the preceding three stages to ensure that he still carried a comfortable lead at the end of the leg.
It was a bad afternoon overall for Citroen, as Dani Sordo lost third to Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala when he had to stop on SS15 to remove a snow shield from his car's radiator as the C4 began to overheat. That left Sordo 55sec behind Latvala going into the final day, as the Finn had raised his game this afternoon and started catching the Citroen even before Sordo's problem.
Sebastien Ogier also struggled with tire strategy on this loop, but remains fifth for Citroen Junior, ahead of Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg, whose teammate Matthew Wilson moved back up to seventh when Mads Ostberg lost time with a trip through a ditch, snow in his Adapta Subaru's air filter, and excessive tire wear. Having made a setup breakthrough at service, Wilson is now confident he can resist Ostberg tomorrow.
The recovering Petter Solberg has brought his Solberg Citroen back up to ninth, and Kimi Raikkonen also had some encouragement when he set the sixth fastest time overall on SS15.
But it was another tough loop for Marcus Gronholm (Stobart Ford), as although he won the second run through the Sagen stage, he lost yet more time with a puncture and an off-road excursion.