Saturday wrap : Latvala in charge
The advantage on the stages ebbed and blowed between the two Finns all day, but the cushion Latvala had built up with his spurt near the end of Friday proved vital.
Even when Hirvonen's Citroen was a little quicker today, there was still no need for Ford man Latvala to worry too much - and a blistering performance on stage 16 added a few more seconds to his 23-second lead margin just to make things even more secure.
With six more stages to go on Sunday, nothing is guaranteed yet, but Latvala has reason to feel confident after a mature performance today. Not that Hirvonen - in only his second FIA World Rally Championship powered by Nokia outing in a Citroen DS3 WRC - has any reason to be displeased with his achievements today, as he promised there was much more to come as he got ever more comfortable in the French team.
Petter Solberg fell off the lead pace today, although he regained some speed when he switched to Ford team-mate Latvala's set-up. The former champion was able to fend off the hard-charging Mads Ostberg - helped a little by the Adapta Ford jumping into launch mode midway through stage 17 - despite feeling that he was still getting the hang of the Ford Fiesta RS WRC on the ever-changing mix of snow, ice and gravel.
"It's maybe the toughest rally for me to just jump in," said Solberg. "Tomorrow will be a hard day."
Saturday was not the finest day of Sebastien Loeb's illustrious career. Although he had quickly got back up from 11th to seventh on Friday afternoon following his incident with a snow bank, a spin this morning and puncture this afternoon hampered further progress, and he was only able to gain one more place - edging ahead of Henning Solberg into sixth overall.
"Anything is possible tomorrow but we didn't have a very good day," Loeb admitted.
Next on his list will be Evgeny Novikov, currently 44.4s ahead in fifth and determined to stay there.
"We will do everything and we will never let Loeb catch up - even if I go off," the M-Sport Ford driver pledged. "We will push to the maximum."
Patrik Sandell continues to uphold MINI honour in eighth place, despite a scare when he accidentally left a piece of road-section-only protective material on the car going onto a stage and caused the engine to being overheating.
Martin Prokop (Czech National Ford) and Eyvind Brynildsen (Adapta Ford) fill the remaining points-scoring positions, while much further back a long trip into a ditch this morning left Ott Tanak way down the field, but the Estonian still showed his speed with some rapid stage times - including going fastest of all on the Hagfors Sprint.