Sébastien Ogier led Coates Hire Rally Australia after Friday’s tight opening leg which ended with less than eight seconds covering the top five.
The Frenchman headed a Volkswagen Polo R 1-2-3 by overhauling Jari-Matti Latvala in the final short special stage in Coffs Harbour to lead by 0.4sec. Andreas Mikkelsen was third, a further 3.1sec behind.
Ogier led after the first gravel stage in the New South Wales countryside, despite being first in the start order. But as conditions dried he bore the brunt of sweeping slippery surface gravel and fell back to fourth.
Kris Meeke moved his Citroen DS3 to the front after two consecutive stage wins. He held off an attacking Latvala until the Finn moved ahead in the penultimate stage, only for him to be edged out by Ogier.
Latvala might well have held the overnight lead had it not been for soft brakes in the opening stage which cost a handful of seconds and required bleeding before the next test.
Meeke was relegated to fourth in the final two city stages but is only 4.1sec behind Ogier. Consolation is that he will restart last of the headline World Rally Car drivers tomorrow as the running order was calculated at the conclusion of the country tests when he led.
Mikkelsen and Mikko Hirvonen were initially Meeke’s closest pursuers, Hirvonen enjoying one of his best days of the season to hold fifth in a Ford Fiesta RS, 7.9sec from the lead.
Hayden Paddon was sixth, just ahead of a lacklustre Mads Østberg, who replaced the rear differential on his DS3 at lunchtime service. Robert Kubica held eighth, despite an opening stage spin, ahead of Elfyn Evans, who dropped time after stalling at a hairpin in SS2.
Thierry Neuville was among the group fighting for the lead, despite his Hyundai i20 being kicked off the road following an opening stage jump. However, broken rear suspension this afternoon cost almost two minutes and he is 10th.
Saturday’s second leg covers two loops of two stages, each loop starting with the monster 48.92km Nambucca test. A repeat of the two short stages in Coffs Harbour closes the day after 118.88km of action.