Thierry Neuville held a comfortable lead at the end of Saturday’s second leg of Xion Rally Argentina after a troubled day for closest rivals Ott Tänak and Sébastien Ogier.
He ended the longest leg of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship with a 45.7sec advantage over Hyundai i20 team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen on a stellar day for the Korean manufacturer.
Neuville fended off a charging Tänak this morning after the Estonian made light work of demoting Ogier and climbing to second. His lead was slashed to less than seven seconds, but Tänak's attack ended when his Toyota Yaris stopped with alternator problems.
Earlier Ogier broke his Citroën C3's power steering after hitting a stone gate pillar when he became confused over which route to follow at a cattle grid. He dropped almost a minute and their demise left Neuville on course for a second straight WRC win.
"We can start using the word comfortable for the gap we have, but tomorrow's stages are far from comfortable. They are rough, tricky and narrow so we need to keep our concentration and rhythm. We just need to keep it calm and in the middle of the road," said Neuville.
The water and mud of yesterday was gone, replaced by blue skies and bright sunshine. The fast pampas roads in the Punilla Valley dried quickly, but grip was still inconsistent through the early morning speed tests until temperatures reached 23°C.
Mikkelsen enjoyed his best day for some time. He won two speed tests and capitalised on the problems of others, despite swiping a bank and having to stem a gearbox oil leak.
Kris Meeke headed a closely-packed trio in third, a further 17.5sec behind. He lost 20sec this morning after brake problems in his Yaris. He struggled to slow the car entering a watersplash and hit the same bank as Mikkelsen, limping through the next test with a broken rear wheel.
After plunging to sixth, a fired-up Ogier won two of the afternoon's three stages to move up to fourth, 6.0sec clear of Dani Sordo in a third i20. Jari-Matti Latvala completed the top six in another Yaris, despite a slow puncture.
Elfyn Evans retired from sixth after rolling his Ford Fiesta heavily. He and co-driver Scott Martin were unhurt, but their car came to rest below the road with the sump guard ripped from the chassis.
Sunday's finale heads into the rugged Traslasierra mountains for one of the WRC's classic days. Two passes through the El Cóndor test, the second of which forms the Wolf Power Stage, sandwich the lunar-like landscapes of Mina Clavero. The three tests cover 53.16km.
Leading positions after Saturday:
1. T Neuville / N Gilsoul BEL Hyundai i20 +2hr 37min 23.6sec
2. A Mikkelsen / A Jaeger-Amland NOR Hyundai i20 +45.7sec
3. K Meeke / S Marshall GBR Toyota Yaris +1min 03.2sec
4. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Citroën C3 +1min 06.0sec
5. D Sordo / C del Barrio ESP Hyundai i20 +1min 12.0sec
6. J-M Latvala / M Anttila FIN Toyota Yaris +1min 28.3sec