Francois Duval is ideally placed to banish memories of a mixed world rally season as he heads into the final day of the campaign with a handy cushion to his pursuers on Rally Australia.
The Belgian would probably have been on course for another second spot had it not been for an intervention by the local fauna, but has controlled the gap to his nearest rivals in a manner not normally associated with his record this year.
Leg two started with the Bannister stage run in the Sotico tree plantation south-east of Perth. The roads, which included the famous stomach-churning Bunnings jumps and a watersplash, are more commonly used by logging trucks, and featured the trademark marble-like gravel that made conditions especially slippery for the first cars through. Overnight leader Petter Solberg, however, used his road position of eleventh to great effect early on.
Solberg entered the day nursing a 50-second advantage but, after winning the opening stage in the loop, was the victim of a professional foul by an errant kangaroo, severely damaging the cooling systems on his works Subaru. The Norwegian carried the car to the end of SS13, but the damage had already been done, and the former world champion became the third victim of the leader's poisoned chalice.
Duval, having shrugged off the challenge of Colin McRae and Harri Rovanpera to hold second spot overnight, was thus ideally positioned to assume control of the event, and did not relinquish his lead over the remaining seven stages, again culminating with a double pass through the Perth city superspecial. Two stage wins followed by the fastest run through the spectator special confirmed the Citroen
man ahead by 27.1secs with just six tests remaining on Sunday.
If anything, the battle for second place took on greater attraction with Duval's elevation to P1, McRae and Rovanpera more closely matched with each other than the Citroen. McRae began the day ahead, but remained in third place when Solberg dropped out, Rovanpera having made a flying start to the day, taking stage wins on SS13 and SS14 - despite scarring from his own kangaroo attack. No more than four seconds away from the Mitsubishi, however, McRae eventually recovered what was now second overall when Rovanpera spun on SS16, and maintained his slim advantage to the overnight halt.
Unusually for late on day two of a WRC event, places continued to be fluid throughout the top ten, despite the same names almost cemented into the leading positions on each stage. The biggest waves were being caused by local hero Chris Atkinson
who, having been dumped to 13th by steering problems on day one, continued his inexorable climb back up the order, seemingly demoting rivals with each passing stage despite missing his front spoiler for the opening four tests. The impressive Aussie claimed fastest time on both SS17 and SS18 to move into sixth, and now has fifth-placed Gigi Galli - himself impressive - in his sights for Sunday.
Privateer Manfred Stohl continues to hold a strong fourth spot, albeit in something approaching no man's land between the Mitsubishis of Rovanpera and Galli after a spin and a puncture, while the new works Fords of Roman Kresta and Toni Gardemeister occupy the final point scoring places, at the expense of Focus privateer Dani Sola.
Gardemeister had to change all of his spark plugs on the road section between SS14 and SS15 after his engine lapsed on to three cylinders, eventually costing him a place to Atkinson. Kresta, meanwhile, had a relatively quiet day, capped by a solitary run through the second superspecial stage as Sola, his scheduled head-to-head opponent, was forced to delay his start. The young Spaniard suffered a turbo fire after the first pass and had to stop to extinguish the flames. He later ran through the second stage on his own - but incurred a 40secs penalty for checking into the time control later than scheduled.
The PCWRC lead also changed hands, with champion-elect Toshi Arai taking over ain front after long-time leader Mark Higgins struck a hidden rock on SS15 and ripped a wheel off his Subaru. The Briton continued to the end of the stage, but had dropped into the clutches of third-placed Aki Teiskonen, who eventually eased into second spot as Higgins suffered a delay at the Bannister watersplash. Arai heads into the final day of the season with a comparatively massive 1min 14secs lead of his nearest rival and could afford to back off slightly and still claim class victory.