Flying Finn sets pace
Latvala upstaged his team-mate, countryman and World Rally drivers’ championship leader Mikko Hirvonen, who claimed a single stage to remain in contention despite trailing by 23.6 seconds after the opening day.
Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier is second, only 2.2s behind Latvala, having won five stages.
The Red Bull Citroen and five-time defending champion Sebastien Loeb is fourth, 22.7s behind.
But it was a day highlighted by Latvala’s prodigious talent behind the wheel, although he did have the advantage of starting fourth and having the road ‘swept’ by the favourites.
“I enjoyed the advantage of a good start position, which meant much of the slippery gravel on the road surface had been swept away, but I’m still quite surprised to be leading,” Latvala said.
“I drove at 95 per cent this morning and stepped that up to 98 per cent this afternoon. That was fast enough because any quicker and the car would have slid too sideways and cost me time.
“The grip level has changed constantly because after this morning’s rain, some corners remained damp this afternoon.”
The 24-year-old, who was fifth after the two super special stages in Murwillumbah on Thursday night, took the lead from Ogier after the morning’s second stage around Kyogle’s Toonumbar Dam.
Latvala led as the cars headed back to the service centre at Kings-cliff but then he won a hat-trick of gravel stages around the Tweed.
Ogier pulled back 1.2s on the tight Murwillumbah street circuit, which was packed by thousands of fans for the second night in a row.
“I hit a hole in the fourth stage which bent the steering,” Latvala said. “I tried not to think about it, drove normally and it worked. The team replaced the cross-member at the lunchtime service.”
I didn’t want to play tactics and sacrifice time this afternoon for a better road position tomorrow.
“I think it’s possible for a driver to win this rally from starting first on the road but it won’t be easy.
“I’ve enjoyed my driving and it’s important I keep the rhythm. I’m first on the road tomorrow, and that’s going to going to help Mikko.”
Team-mate Hirvonen, who is locked in a titanic struggle with Loeb for the drivers’ championship, was hampered by the conditions as the first car on the course.
However, he showed his speed when racing returned to the Kyogle stage on Old Cob o’ Corn Road for the second time. He won that stage at an average of 128km/h.
The tight fight for third between Hirvonen, Loeb and Dani Sordo is intense with the trio separated by only 0.9s.
Loeb suffered mysterious engine power problems on stage six but had it quickly solved. “It was because the throttle pedal wasn’t going flat to the floor,” he said.
“But that’s fixed now so everything is good. I was slower than Mikko this afternoon, there is always tomorrow, I have been having a dreadful day, I also was using old tires for the Super Special.
“It has been a tough day, I will need to hold position tomorrow, and hopefully it will be different.”
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Team driver Khalid Al Qassimi is the first WRC retirement from the rally after hitting a rock on stage seven and breaking his car’s steering.
He is expected to return to day two under Super Rally rules.