Leg 1 leader Sebastien Ogier, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala all saw their hopes diminish during a punishing day to leave the wily Loeb at the head of the pack in his Citroen DS3.
Just four more stages and 77.92km stand between the Frenchman and a remarkable eighth straight WRC victory in Argentina.
“It was a very hard day for tyres and the cars,” said Loeb. “I didn’t have any problems but I had to push hard because Ogier was pushing hard also. I expected it to be difficult and it was. I will try to be cautious tomorrow but I still have to keep a rhythm.”
Ogier won the opening test south of Carlos Paz amid fog and mud after heavy overnight rain. It was his fifth victory in six stages and stretched his lead to 17.7sec, but it proved to be the last of the day for the Volkswagen Polo R driver.
In the next test he lost the lead after sliding straight on at a slippery corner to allow Loeb ahead. Ironically, Loeb twice made a similar mistake on the morning stages but dropped a handful of seconds compared to Ogier’s 40 second loss, which relegated him to third.
Ogier attacked on the afternoon’s opening stage. However, the morning pass had dug out plenty of large stones from the sandy surface, and a front left puncture cost more time. The championship leader decided the fight was over and throttled back.
Despite the flat, Ogier climbed to second as Mikko Hirvonen punctured the rear right tyre of his Citroen DS3 in the same stage and lost 35 seconds. Worse was to come for the Finn when an electrical glitch in the following test cost almost six minutes and he fell to sixth.
Latvala tried to capitalise on Hirvonen’s woes but stopped to change a puncture after his Volkswagen Polo R landed in a hole after a crest. The switch took less than two minutes and he retained fourth, winning tonight’s super special stage in Carlos Paz.
The other big beneficiary was Evgeny Novikov. The Russian’s cautious strategy is reaping rewards and he is third in a Ford Fiesta RS, albeit more than two minutes behind Ogier and 8.2sec ahead of Latvala.
Fifth is Thierry Neuville, the Belgian’s Fiesta RS more than three minutes clear of Hirvonen. Mads Ostberg climbed to seventh in a similar car, the Norwegian winning SS7, with Martin Prokop recovering from yesterday’s roll in eighth.
Andreas Mikkelsen was another afternoon casualty. The Polo R pilot clipped a bridge in SS8 and retired on the following road section with broken suspension. Michal Kosciuszko stopped in the opening stage with similar damage to his Mini John Cooper Works.
Tomorrow’s final leg begins at 07.00 and comprises two loops of the classic Giulio Cesare and El Condor stages, in the spectacular moon-like mountains south-west of Cordoba. The finish is at 14.20 in Carlos Paz.