Sebastien Loeb leads his final World Rally Championship event after a clean sweep of stage wins on Friday morning in France.
Only seventh fastest on Thursday's superspecial, where his sometime arch-rival Sebastien Ogier became the first WRC champion of the post-Loeb era, the Citroen driver surged forward when the full-length stages began.
As intermittent rain showers made all three stages tricky, Loeb's teammate Dani Sordo initially maintained the lead he had established on the superspecial. But Loeb edged ever closer and by the end of the rally's longest stage – the 21 miles of Vosges – he was into first position again.
Loeb was one of three drivers who thrived on Vosges, where he, Jari-Matti Latvala and Thierry Neuville were a class apart. While Neuville's pace owed something to the mix of hard and soft tires on his M-Sport Ford in the variable weather, both Loeb and Volkswagen driver Latvala maintained their speed on four hard Michelins.
Loeb now leads Latvala by 3.7 seconds and Neuville by 4.7, with Sordo 6.2sec down in fourth.
New champion Ogier struggled badly on Vosges, losing 19s to VW team-mate Latvala on the same tires. He is back in fifth, 22.3sec off the lead.
Mikko Hirvonen fared worse still, lacking confidence and spinning on SS4, leaving him behind Evgeny Novikov in seventh.
Robert Kubica has dominated WRC 2 so far and already leads by three and a half minutes following a puncture for main rival Elfyn Evans.
Leading positions after SS4:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 36m19.0s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala VW +3.7s
3. Thierry Neuville M-Sport Ford +4.7s
4. Dani Sordo Citroen +6.2s
5. Sebastien Ogier VW +22.3s
6. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford +46.5s
7. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen +48.2s
8. Andreas Mikkelsen VW +51.2s
9. Mads Ostberg M-Sport Ford +56.9s
10. Martin Prokop Czech Ford +1m25.7s