Thierry Neuville overshadowed Sebastien Loeb's farewell and Sebastien Ogier's World Rally Championship crown as he flew into the Rally of France lead on Friday afternoon.
The Belgian's M-Sport Ford team was the only one to base its setup and tire choice around an entirely dry second loop, with all rivals at least hedging their bets and including some soft compounds in their selection. But with the weather much improved and little dampness left on the stages, Neuville took a trio of stage wins.
His victory on the long Vosges stage was particularly crucial. At the start of the 21-mile test the top four were covered by just 4.1 seconds, but it ended with Neuville leading by 9.8sec.
Former leader Loeb fell to fourth on that stage, with his Citroen team-mate Dani Sordo getting back up to second and Jari-Matti Latvala's Volkswagen slotting in between. These three drivers are still within 2.4sec of each other.
Champion Ogier remains in a muted fifth place. He confessed that he had struggled to get into gear on the morning loop following the excitement of becoming world champion on Thursday evening's superspecials. His attempted fightback in the afternoon was stymied by an incorrect tire choice and he is now 28sec off the lead.
Neuville's teammate Evgeny Novikov also benefited from good tire tactics to pull clear of Andreas Mikkelsen, Mikko Hirvonen and Mads Ostberg into a comfortable sixth position.
Leading positions after SS7:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Thierry Neuville M-Sport Ford 1h08m56.5s
2. Dani Sordo Citroen +9.8s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala VW +11.8s
4. Sebastien Loeb Citroen +12.2s
5. Sebastien Ogier VW +28.7s
6. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford +1m03.6s
7. Andreas Mikkelsen VW +1m26.4s
8. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen +1m33.5s
9. Mads Ostberg M-Sport Ford +1m37.5s
10. Martin Prokop Czech Ford +2m36.3s