Mikko Hirvonen has moved into the lead of Rally New Zealand with just three stages remaining after capitalising from Jari-Matti Latvala's road position and a rare mistake committed by Sebastien Loeb to lead by 7.1secs.
Having been hobbled by running first on the road on day two, Hirvonen looked a far more aggressive driver over the first two stages to prove comfortably the quickest of the four protagonists still in with a realistic chance of victory.
Hirvonen had Ford team-mate Latvala to thank for his upturn in pace, the erstwhile rally leader doing his utmost to maintain a decent amount of speed whilst at the same time establishing a racing line. As expected, he struggled on the loose gravel to drop a total of 16secs in just two stages.
Now seven seconds behind Hirvonen, Latvala nonetheless remains well in contention for victory though – team orders permitting - as the afternoon loop takes in a re-run of the same stages. As such, he will be on more of a par with Hirvonen with just 43kms remaining.
Still, Ford are by no means home and dry in this rally yet, even if they will be surprised to find their closest competition coming from Dani Sordo, rather than Loeb. Pushing to break down the small gap to Hirvonen, Loeb suffered a high-speed spin on the first stage of the day. Although he managed to thread the revolving Citroen C4 away from the scenery, the ten seconds lost has really hurt his hopes of challenging for victory.
With the championship leader heading into the afternoon with 17.6secs to make up, Citroen could do well to pile their resources into helping Sordo up the order instead now after the Spaniard made his play for victory over the morning.
Capitalising on having the best starting position of the leading quartet, Sordo has jumped up to third place, 8.9secs behind Hirvonen and 1.8secs adrift of Latvala. With team orders looming if he can't slot between the two Fords, the pressure is on Sordo to perform this afternoon.
Just as he was yesterday, Henning Solberg proved the class act over the morning, the Norwegian driver winning both stages by a considerable margin. However, his dominance is still only quick enough to lift him up into 13th place overall now.
Francois Duval maintained a steady fifth in the Stobart Focus, although team-mate Matthew Wilson showed exactly what the car is capable of in full flow by claiming the second fastest time through SS14.