Citroen's Kris Meeke heads the pack on Rally Australia post-SS4, moving to the fore and snatching the lead from Dani Sordo with the quickest time in the final test of Friday morning's loop.
Meeke, who is desperate for a good result after a string of bad events, opted to look after his tyres initially before gradually upping the pace.
As a result he was fifth fastest in SS1, third in SS2 and second in SS3, before then coming through SS4, the 29.51km Newry Long 1 test - the longest stage of the day – 0.4s up on Champion-elect Sebastien Ogier and 11.2s up on early leader, Sordo.
The Ulsterman now takes a 3.3 second lead into the mid-day service in Coffs Harbour: “I had a real nice rhythm,” Meeke said during the mid-day halt. “Tyre choice is more complex when you are sixth or seventh on the road. When you are in the line you have grip and destroy the tyres. I had to manage the tyre wear so we had grip for the long one.
“I am really happy how it is going so far. This morning we were trying to read the road – where there lines went and when we came to crests I hesitated quite a few times and lost time. When you got out of the line it was really thick gravel.”
Meanwhile, Sordo, who was quickest in SS1, SS2 and SS3, reported a downshift issue in SS4, stalling at a hairpin and losing around 5 seconds.
“I was happy with every stage. I am still in the fight even after losing those five seconds in the last stage [when we had a problem],” added the Hyundai pilot, no doubt keen to make a point this weekend after being demoted to the 'third' car.
“Now we have to decide about tyres [for the afternoon]. We know the first three will be very hard and the fourth is likely to be quite soft.”
Sordo's team-mate Hayden Paddon, who has taken over the #8 i20 WRC for Oz, rounds out the top-three, 3.7s further back, despite not being happy with his tyre selection.
“I am happy enough with the position – there is still a long way to go – but we got caught out with the tyre choice and the abrasive nature of the roads,” explained the New Zealander.
“Now we will make some changes for this afternoon – starting with tyres and some changes to the suspension to make it more racy so we can push some more. To be so close to the lead when we haven't been pushing is a good confidence boost. This afternoon the roads will be a lot cleaner and we will have a better set up – so I am sure it will be good.”
Behind, the Volkswagen's of Andreas Mikkelsen, Jari-Matti Latvala and Ogier hold positions 4 through to 6, all losing time as the opening three cars through the stages, although Ogier was still second in SS4.
M-Sport's Ott Tanak holds seventh, dropping behind Latvala and Ogier in Newry Long 1 after stalling at a junction and uncertain whether the decision to run with the hard tyres was correct.
“We were on different tyres to all of the other teams but it's hard to say whether that was right or wrong,” Tanak noted. “We know that we were struggling in places but also that everyone else was a little cautious about the wear so it's difficult to say if one was markedly better than the other.
“We are here and the pace has been reasonably good so let's see what we can do over the second loop. We've been trying to improve the notes all morning and we'll make a few small changes to the car so hopefully we can push a bit more this afternoon.”
Further back, Hyundai's Thierry Neuville is eighth, 2.4s off Sordo, with Mads Ostberg-sub Stephane Lefebvre ninth and Elfyn Evans tenth after a difficult morning.
“The feeling just wasn't there and we were struggling with overall confidence,” Evans said. “We also had a puncture in the last one [SS4]. We had a spin and hit the bank which is most likely where we picked it up.
“It's not been a great morning, but we'll make some changes in service and see if we can turn it around.”
In WRC2, Nasser Al-Attiyah has set the early standard, winning three of the four tests, to build a 28.7s lead over Yuriy Protasov. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari holds third.
Rally Australia now continues this afternoon, with repeat runs through all four of this morning's tests. SS5, the 7.88 km Utungun 2 test, is due to start at 14.00 hours local time [05.00 hours UK time]. Full itinerary for round ten in WRC 2015 available - HERE
2015 Rally Australia: Overall standings after Stage 4 (Top 10):
1. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC 38m 06.7s
2. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +0m 03.3s
3. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 07.0s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +0m 10.3s
5. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 10.7s
6. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 11.8s
7. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +0m 17.6s
8. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 20.0s
9. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +1m 16.1s
10. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 40.6s
11. Lorenzo Bertelli
FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC +1m 57.9s
12. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC +2m 02.6s
13. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +2m 31.3s
14. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +2m 42.1s
15. Nathan Quinn
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +3m 49.3s
WRC2 standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC 40m 09.3s
2. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 28.7s
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 39.5s
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial