Elfyn Evans has all but doubled his Rally Portugal lead in one go as he stole 9.6 seconds from Dani Sordo to establish a 20.3s lead at the head of the field.
Sunday morning started with a short 5.7-mile stage and Evans was imperious, going 8.9s quicker than anybody else on the test to put himself firmly in the box seat for the rally win later today.
“Yeah it was a very big push!” Evans said. “Happy enough with that.”
It had been Sordo that had done the surprising on Saturday evening, beating Evans by 5.7s on a short superspecial. But he lost that advantage and more on SS16 and now faces quite a task to overhaul his Toyota rival.
“I’m not happy, there was some mistakes,” said Sordo.
“It’s a really tricky stage. It’s difficult, I don’t want to make a mistake but at the same time I want to keep the pressure there.”
Sébastien Ogier had looked to be under podium pressure from Toyota stablemate Takamoto Katsuta at the start of Sunday but the pressure on the seven-time world champion’s shoulders has eased after SS16.
Katsuta looked to have backed off on Sunday morning, meaning the gap between himself and Ogier ballooned from 1.5s to 11.4s.
“It’s just a tricky stage, not good driving,” Katsuta explained.
Ogier added: “Of course I was not really pushing, there’s a lot of negative camber in that stage so very easy to lose the car.”
The battle between M-Sport’s drivers for fifth is finely poised on Saturday, Adrien Fourmaux beginning the day 6.4s clear of Gus Greensmith.
While Greensmith has generally been the faster of the pair this weekend but for a throttle problem – which has now been fixed – he lost 0.5s to his team-mate on SS16 as he “wanted to be careful” given the treacherous nature of the test.
Asked if he can fight for fifth, Greensmith said: “Yeah, can do! A gentle run through there and we can pick up the pace quite easily.”
Fourmaux, on his first gravel rally in a World Rally Car, set a strong second-fastest time on the stage but admitted: “I’m struggling with tires to be honest, I think they are dead now! It could be a long day.”
Thierry Neuville, Kalle Rovanperä and erstwhile rally leader Ott Tänak all returned to action following their respective retirements on Saturday.
For all three, the purpose of the day is to salvage as many points from this afternoon’s Fafe powerstage as possible.
Tire saving was therefore paramount and Neuville took that to the extreme, losing 23.4s to Rovanperä in just 5.7 miles.
Rovanperä was however experimenting with a different set-up, “trying something on the suspension and geometry on the car”.
Tänak’s time loss to the Toyota was less severe, dropping 10.7s and confessing to “just driving through at the moment”.
He too has all his eggs in the powerstage basket, electing not to take a spare tire and even switching back to an open-helmet, having used a closed-face design on the last few WRC rounds.
Tänak said light-heartedly: “It’s also half a kilo lighter, so powerstage spec!”
WRC2 leader Esapekka Lappi is seventh overall in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 and confessed he feels under “no pressure” on the leaderboard, instead insisting: “The pressure is to keep it on the road.”
That feeling was exaggerated further on SS16 as his closest rival, Teemu Suninen, spun his Ford Fiesta Rally2 and gave up 34.5s to now trail by over a minute.
Suninen explained: “I was struggling the whole stage with the rear and yeah, we are running out of tires so it’s something to manage.”
Mads Østberg is confident of retaining his third in class and ninth overall in his Citroën C3 Rally2 but it was Nikolay Gryazin who set a searing pace in WRC2, setting a time just 1.3s slower than Ogier’s Yaris WRC.
That closed Gryazin up to 10.5s behind Østberg with Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg fifth, just outside the overall top 10 by 11.7s.
“The intercom cut, so what can I do?” Solberg lamented. “It will be very difficult [to fix], but we have to try.”
1 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota) 6m05.1s
2 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (M-Sport Ford) +8.9s
3 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (M-Sport Ford) +9.4s
4 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai) +9.6s
5 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota) +11.4s
6 Nikolay Gryazin/Konstantin Aleksandrov (Volkswagen) +12.7s
Leading positions after SS16
1 Evans/Martin 3h13m14.2s
2 Sordo/Rozada +20.3s
3 Ogier/Ingrassia +1m15.6s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota) +1m27.0s
6 Greensmith/Patterson +4m37.6s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Volkswagen) +8m41.0s
8 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (M-Sport Ford) +9m52.8s
9 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Citroën) +11m03.3s
10 Gryazin/Aleksandrov +11m13.8s