The outsider in the WRC decider Down Under, Tänak must win this final round and claim maximum bonus points in Sunday’s Power Stage finale to earn a shot at a maiden crown.
He is on course to achieve the first part of his target after a blistering charge from fifth to lead the three-day gravel road fixture by 21.9sec from Toyota Yaris team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
Championship leader Sébastien Ogier lies sixth in a Ford Fiesta after a composed drive through dusty New South Wales shire roads near Coffs Harbour, and remains favourite to seal a sixth consecutive title.
The Frenchman reined in his attacking instincts in the knowledge he held the upper hand over Thierry Neuville, who once again struggled in the conditions in his Hyundai i20.
Dry roads meant the early starters were effectively high-speed road-sweepers, cleaning the surface of thick gravel to expose a faster line with more grip for those starting later. Second in the order handed no favours to Neuville, who ended eighth.
If positions stay the same tomorrow, Tänak and Neuville’s efforts would be insufficient to deprive Ogier of the title, irrespective of the Power Stage bonus points.
Tänak won six of the day’s 10 speed tests to erase an overnight 16.9sec deficit to Mads Østberg. “Today was back to a normal day in the office, yesterday there were too many issues. I know Seb well, he’s a smart guy, but we’ll target our job and you never know what can happen,” he said.
Latvala was first to relegate Østberg and led at the mid-leg service. He regretted not carrying two spare wheels this afternoon as worn tyres slowed the Finn and he was powerless to repel Tänak.
Hayden Paddon won two stages to climb to third in an i20, 4.4sec behind Latvala and 20.3sec clear of a frustrated Østberg, who struggled with his Citroën C3’s balance all afternoon.
Team-mate Craig Breen fared worse. The Irishman spun into a bank and damaged his rear suspension. Roadside repairs kept him going, but the time loss was significant and after starting the day in second, he plunged to 10th.
Esapekka Lappi profited to hold fifth in another Yaris, almost a minute clear of Ogier, whose team-mate Elfyn Evans provided a convenient buffer between himself and Neuville.
Belgian Neuville gave his all but damaged suspension after a brush with a bank reminded him that retirement would extinguish his ever-dwindling title hopes. He was more than 50sec behind Ogier.
Sunday’s final leg journeys north of Coffs Harbour. Drivers face two identical loops of three tests covering 83.96km before the destiny of the 2018 champion becomes known.