Jari-Matti Latvala remains almost half a minute clear of the field in the Rally Sardinia as running first on the road proved not to be such a handicap after all this morning.
Both Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb had tactically slowed yesterday afternoon because they feared that the dusty surface would be a massive impediment for whoever headed the start list. But while the two title rivals managed to close in on Latvala, his lead over Ford teammate Hirvonen only came down from 39 to 27 seconds on this morning's three stages.
"We have had no problems at all," said Latvala. "Of course it's been a bit difficult to drive as first car on the road.
"The first stage wasn't too bad, actually. The second one was a little bit slippery in the beginning. This third one was the worst. I believe we will be losing something like 15-20s to Loeb, so there is still some margin for the afternoon."
Hirvonen had been hugely frustrated that Loeb had slowed more than him and gained an even better road position for this morning, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he was holding his own against the world champion -- who actually lost time to the Fords on SS7 before winning the next two tests.
"Now we're having fun. Now I'm really enjoying it and having a good time," said Hirvonen. "But Sebastien is pushing really hard behind, so he might be little bit faster, but not by much, so it's going to be a good fight."
Loeb technically took second from Hirvonen on SS9 and should now be 3s ahead, but he is set to receive a 10sec penalty for checking in late at the time control prior to the stage.
"We had to bleed the brakes, and I thought we were closer to the start than we really were," he explained. "We couldn't get there in time."
Fourth-placed Petter Solberg has fallen away from the podium battle and admitted to being too aggressive at times this morning. He is set to come under pressure from the recovering Dani Sordo, who has charged up to fifth in the second factory Citroen after his Friday problems.
"I'm happy with the morning," Sordo said. "It was really difficult because it was really slippery, but the car has behaved well. This afternoon could be more difficult."
Sordo's path back into the top five was eased by problems for the three drivers who began the day ahead of him. Mads Ostberg damaged the suspension of his Adapta Subaru on the Monte Lerno stage's massive jump, but remains sixth despite having a "terrible" run through the rest of the stage.
Evgeny Novikov (Citroen Junior) struggled with the slippery surfaces this morning and also stalled twice on SS8, so has now dropped to seventh, while Henning Solberg got up to fifth for Stobart Ford before losing a lot of time on SS9 when first his car cut out, and then he picked up a puncture after an impact at the rear.Leading positions after SS9:
Pos Driver Car Time
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford 2h11m38.4s
2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 24.5s*
3. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 27.0s
4. Petter Solberg Citroen + 1m00.3s
5. Dani Sordo Citroen + 1m26.9s
6. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 1m54.7s
7. Evgeny Novikov Citroen + 2m05.2s
8. Henning Solberg Ford + 2m42.7s
9. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m35.4s
10. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 4m52.7s
* 10s penalty yet to be applied