Juho Hanninen will start the final leg of Rally Argentina with a lead of more than half a minute following a dominant performance at the wheel of his Skoda Fabia S2000 through the Saturday stages.
The 28-year-old Intercontinental Rally Challenge leader was fastest on six of Saturday's seven special stages, despite insisting he was not going flat-out in his efforts to claim his first victory of the season alongside co-driver Mikko Markkula.
Although Hanninen could lose time by running first on the road on Sunday, his pace during the afternoon might be enough to minimise any disadvantage he could face.
"It's been a good day with no problems,” he said. “I pushed a bit more this afternoon to keep my lead good for tomorrow even though there were some deep ruts. I plan to keep my gap tomorrow although I know the boys behind will still be pushing. I will just see what I can do."
Guy Wilks moved into second place – making it a Skoda 1-2 - on the sixth stage when he demoted fellow Brit Kris Meeke into third overall. Wilks claimed his first stage win of the campaign when he went fastest on the fourth test of the gravel rally and apart from regretting his decision to raise the ride height of his Fabia and experiment with his suspension settings in the afternoon, the Englishman said he was satisfied with his performance.
"The stages have been tricky today,” he said, “but we've got to keep the pressure on tomorrow because you never know what will happen. Juho has been flying today, particularly this afternoon."
Meeke, the defending IRC champion, rued his choice of the harder compound tyre for the afternoon's loop of three stages, which he said was not suited to the conditions, which remained dry, albeit slightly colder than in the morning. The Peugeot UK ace, who was hindered by an electronic glitch on stages four and five, lost more ground when he picked up a front-right puncture two kilometres from the end of the day's final stage.
Czech driver Jan Kopecky, in the second factory Skoda, makes no secret of his lack of gravel prowess although a fourth-gear spin on stage three did little to help his confidence. He had hoped to find more speed by running with only one spare wheel to carry less weight during the morning loop of stages but that gamble made no difference to his outright pace. Nevertheless, he is on course for a healthy haul of points in fourth overall.
Fifth-placed Federico Villagra
is the leading Argentine heading into day two in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta. The eight-time national champion was mystified that he wasn't closer to the leading pace and suggested his car's engine had lacked power on the sandy stages.
Gabriel Pozzo completes the top six in his Subaru Impreza WRX, despite being handed a 10-second time penalty for leaving morning service late while his mechanics worked to repair damaged rear suspension.
Despite heavy rain in the build-up to the rally, it remained dry throughout Saturday's leg. Rain is expected, however, while fog is expected to add to the challenge facing the crews on Sunday's early stages.