Sebastien Loeb will take an 11sec lead into the final loop of Rally Australia stages after edging away from the competition this morning.
The Citroen team leader had slowed at the end of Saturday to ensure he fell behind title rival Mikko Hirvonen and forced the Ford driver to run first on the dusty stages today - and the tactic paid off as he swiftly retook the lead when leg three got underway.
Hirvonen did not make it easy for Loeb, making the most of some damp - and therefore less loose - sections to hang on gamely. The Finn not only kept Loeb in sight, but managed to stay ahead of the second Citroen of Dani Sordo for second place.
"All the places that are damp, we can match Sebastien's times," said Hirvonen, who swapped places with Sordo three times in today's first five stages and ended the loop 3sec in front. "When it's dry we don't have a chance and we lose time. We'll just try to go flat out and see how fast the boys behind are coming through."
With every stage remaining on today's itinerary having already been used once during the event, Loeb expects Hirvonen to enjoy much better road conditions for the rest of the leg and to start closing back in.
"We'll have to push," said Loeb. "I know now it's all second passes so we'll have to push harder to beat him. He'll be coming back very fast."
What had been a close battle for fourth now looks like a straightforward run to the finish for Sebastien Ogier. The Citroen Junior driver had been fighting with Jari-Matti Latvala until the Ford driver repeated yesterday's minor error and damaged a tire by running wide and clipping a bank. The incident pushed the rubber off the wheel rim and eventually led to a time-consuming puncture, dropping Latvala 40sec adrift of Ogier.
Matthew Wilson is now ahead of Stobart Ford teammate Henning Solberg in their battle for sixth after a spin by the Norwegian this morning. Federico Villagra (Munchi's Ford) remains a lonely eighth ahead of top Group N runner Hayden Paddon and Production class leader Martin Prokop.
Leading positions after SS30:
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 2h19m59.7s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 11.0s
3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 14.8s
4. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 1m09.5s
5. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 1m48.0s
6. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m59.4s
7. Henning Solberg Ford + 4m05.9s
8. Federico Villagra Ford + 5m54.3s
9. Hayden Paddon Mitsubishi + 12m14.9s
10. Martin Prokop Mitsubishi + 12m20.5s