Sebastien Ogier will lead into day three in New Zealand, but Sebastien Loeb is now just five seconds behind him after one of the finest drives of the six-time champion's incredible career.
Loeb looked like he had no hope of victory when he clipped a bridge and damaged his Citroen's door on SS4 yesterday. He fell to eighth place, 1m40s off the lead.
But today the Frenchman has been unstoppable, winning every gravel stage – by huge margins on each run through the tricky Te Akau Coast stage in particular – and surging up the order.
By the midday service he was sixth but still 38.7sec away from new leader Ogier (Citroen Junior). He then won New Franklin 2 by 10sec, leaping up to third in the process, grabbed second from Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala on the following Baker 2 stage, and then trimmed Ogier's lead to just 5sec, although the younger Frenchman reclaimed 0.2sec by winning the end of day blast around the Hampton Downs track.
"It's been an incredible day," said Loeb. "Flat-out from the start to the end. Really very, very good times. We've made up our gap now, we are second but only 5sec behind Ogier so everything is possible again tomorrow.
"I don't know what to say. I wanted to do this. I knew with my road position it was possible to do these things, but now we've done it. I don't think I could have done any better."
While Loeb's speed had stunned the rest of the field, Ogier had also driven well all day – pulling away from Friday rivals Latvala, Petter Solberg and Dani Sordo despite his lack of experience on the event.
"It's the first time I've led a rally after the second day," said Ogier. "It's a very good day at the moment but there's still a long way to go in the morning.
"It will be very hard to stay ahead of Seb, but I'll do my best. It was incredible, he was very, very fast. For sure he had a good position on the road, but he did incredible times."
Latvala is now 33sec behind Ogier in third, with Sordo and Solberg a further 14sec and 20sec back respectively.
Ford's team leader Mikko Hirvonen has closed on Solberg, but is still a minute off the lead after a hugely frustrating first two days in which he has never been on the pace.
"There's a lot to learn," said Hirvonen of his poor times. "We can't go faster really. OK, I made a mistake in the morning but after that it's been a good drive and this is what we have."
He, too, was astounded by Loeb's performance.
"It's been quite amazing, really unbelievable driving," Hirvonen admitted. "I wonder if they've found something again from Citroen to go even faster, because we can't go any faster."
Further back, Jari Ketomaa and Hayden Paddon continue to lead S2000 and Production respectively by comfortable margins.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Ogier Citroen 3h05m40.4s
2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 5.3s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 33.2s
4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 47.5s
5. Petter Solberg Citroen + 53.6s
6. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 1m00.2s
7. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m04.9s
8. Henning Solberg Ford + 5m41.4s
9. Jari Ketomaa Ford + 8m12.7s
10. Federico Villagra Ford + 8m28.8s