Petter Solberg has extended his lead on Rally Japan during leg two, but Sebastien Loeb remains on course to clinch his second World Rally Championship title – holding a comfortable podium position with just five stages remaining on Sunday.
Well aware of what he needs to do to secure the title, Loeb eased off during the twelve stages that made up leg two, only setting three top three stage times as Marcus Gronholm moved ahead of the Citroen man into second place to emerge as Solbergs closest challenger.
Gronholm had said he wasn't confident of launching a challenge for victory at the end of leg one, but five fastest times saw the Finn not only overhaul Loeb but close to within 20 seconds of Solberg's Subaru before the 2003 responded on with a run of fastest times of his own to end the day over half a minute clear.
Loeb sits in third place having already made it clear that his focus is on the championship rather than rally victory, over a minute behind Solberg but with a buffer of over a minute and half to fourth placed Gigi Galli meaning that only a final day disaster will prevent the Frenchman from securing the six points which will ensure he takes the title.
Galli currently heads what looks like being the most interesting battle of the final day, barely a second ahead of Mitsubishi team-mate Harri Rovanpera and with Chris Atkinson and Francois Duval also within striking distance. Atkinson had started the day in fourth but was unable to fend off the challenge of the Mitsubishi duo who again benefited from an impressive turn of speed from the Lancer WRC, Rovanpera the only driver aside from Solberg and Gronholm to set a fastest time on the day – quickest on the first and final stages of the day. Rovanpera had looked good to end the day fourth on the back of his solid display, but Galli moved ahead of SS20 as the Finn struggled in the darkness after problems with his lights.
Atkinson and Duval are separated by less than two seconds heading into the final day, while Toni Gardemeister continued his recovery drive from the opening day by passing team-mate Roman Kresta to move into the final points scoring position. The Czech driver holds ninth place overnight with Daniel Carlsson tenth in the second Peugeot.
In the Production Car World Rally Championship, Toshi Arai wasted little time in overhauling overnight leader Fumio Nutahara to take the class lead, gradually extending his lead over the course of the day to go into the final day with an advantage of 1min 39secs.
Meanwhile British driver Guy Wilks moved into the top twenty overall on the penultimate stage of the day in Suzukis home round of the WRC at the wheel of the new Swift.