BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen has retained his lead on the Pioneer Rally Japan following the second leg on Saturday, which was the longest of the event and accounts for half the event's total stage mileage.
Hirvonen, who began proceedings with a 26.2 second cushion, stretched his lead slightly in the first two stages, before team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala took 10.9 seconds out of him in SS13. The Finn thus finished the morning loop with his advantage cut back to 16.9 seconds.
In the afternoon, Mikko managed to increase his lead back to 21 seconds, before conceding 5 seconds to his fellow countryman in the first run over the Sapporo Dome super special.
The Finn will now take a 15.5 second lead into the final day and while he knows victory won't be enough to keep his championship hopes alive, the 1-2 finish will be good news for Ford in terms of the manufacturers'.
“We are now in a good position to win this rally and to score the maximum points' for Ford with Jari-Matti being second,” said Hirvonen. “Of course if Sebastien stays third then the driver's title will be over but we have no choice. All we can do now is stay concentrated in order to make it to the finish.”
Latvala meanwhile spent the day focusing on Loeb and trying to stay ahead of the Frenchman. He set the fastest time on the morning's third test and added another stage win this afternoon. He concluded the day having increased the margin over the Citroen man from 4.4 seconds to almost 40.
“No trouble, no mistakes and very good pace,” he summarised. “Mikko was also very strong and fast in front of us so as long as Sebastien stays behind we are happy. As soon as he lost time we eased the pace because the road conditions were terrible. The target now is clearly to secure the one-two for Ford.”
Loeb for his part wasn't really bothered about challenging for second and knowing that third position will be enough to allow him to clinch his fifth world title, the Frenchman concentrated on making sure he had no problems or dramas.
"It's no secret that I prefer competing to win. Today, though, it was necessary to keep a cool head,” he stated. “The forest tracks to the south of Sapporo were just as narrow as those we visited on Day 1, but they were faster, too, which means we ran a higher risk of making a mistake. Whenever I felt that the conditions were a little too treacherous, I didn't hesitate to brake earlier than normal.