BP Ford's Mikko Hirvonen will take a very solid lead into the final day of the Rally Japan tomorrow.

Mikko began the second leg around 10 seconds up on Sebastien Loeb and 13.7 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala. Although Seb won the first test of the day, the third run through the short 2.73 kilometre Rikubetsu test, Mikko was only 0.1 seconds slower in his Focus.

Hirvonen then set the pace in the next test, Puray 1 - the longest of the event, but with Seb only 0.4 seconds behind it was extremely close.

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The next stage though turned out to be critical and when Loeb and Latvala both went off in the slippery conditions, Mikko found himself comfortably in front, more than 40 seconds up on Daniel Sordo. Following SS14, the Finn returned to the mid-day service area 50.6 seconds up on the Spaniard.

In the afternoon loop the BP Ford #2 driver continued to push, and once again he set top three times in every single stage, just like he had in the morning.

Following the super specials Hirvonen ended the day with a 38.4 second advantage and seemingly well on course to take his second WRC win of the year and the third of his career, to add to his triumphs in Norway and Australia.

The result will also help Ford close in on the manufacturers' title - although with Sordo second, the M-Sport-run operation will only increase its margin to 34 points and with 36 still up for grabs, the 'Blue Oval' will have to wait until Rally Ireland next month to put it beyond doubt, assuming the positions stay as they are.

Dani meanwhile has freely admitted that he is not in contention to win, unless Mikko makes a mistake. Sordo though, has still set some very good times, including winning SS17. He finished the day more than a minute up on Henning Solberg, who is on course for the final place on the rostrum.

Henning was delighted to end the leg in third, especially as this is his first time in Japan. The Norwegian had no real problems all day with his Stobart Ford Focus and will now be able to pace himself to the finish.

Luis-Perez Companc is next up in fourth, albeit more than 3 minutes further back in his Munchi's Ford Focus. The Argentine is 21.7 seconds up on Matthew Wilson, who is currently set to notch up his best ever result in the WRC.

Manfred Stohl rounds out the top six in his OMV Kronos-run Citroen Xsara WRC, having lost ground and dropped behind Companc and Wilson following mechanical problems in SS14.

Further down the order, Munchi's #2 driver Federico Villagra looks set to get two points, while Katsuhiko Taguchi is eighth and on course not only to take the Group N win, but the final 'senior' WRC point too.

Of the rest, Loeb and Latvala weren't the only two 'works' drivers to have problems, as Xavier Pons also went off the road. The Spaniard lost it in SS12 and beached his Impreza WRC car. Although the car was undamaged he couldn't continue.

Pons' exit meant only Petter Solberg remained to fly the flag for the Subaru World Rally team on its home event. Despite being well down the order though after gear selection problems put him out on day 1, 'Hollywood' set some very competitive times - including taking four stage wins. He hauled himself up from 64th place to 24th by the end of the leg.

Chris Atkinson and Marcus Gronholm both retired on Friday too, like Petter, however they were not able to restart as their cars were too badly damaged. Gronholm damaged his roll cage in his off in SS4, while Atkinson had quite a sizeable off in SS6.

In the FIA Production Car WRC category, Gabriel Pozzo leads by more than 1.5 minutes after Fumio Nutahara had problems this morning.

Takuma Kamada heads the chasing pack, with Leszek Kuzaj third followed by Armindo Araujo, Evgeniy Vertunov and Mark Higgins.

Runaway PWRC championship leader, Toshi Arai ended the day outside of the PWRC points in 12th after his problems on day 1 in SS7.

The action now resumes on Sunday - seven more stages lay in wait, totally around 97 competitive kilometres.