Coffs Harbour, Australia: Sebastien Ogier edged towards a sixth world title at the championship-deciding Rally Australia after his main threat Thierry Neuville dropped almost 45 seconds in the final speed test Friday.
Only three points separate the two drivers after 12 rounds and thousands of kilometres in one of the closest seasons in years, and it was the Frenchman who came out on top on the opening day of the last race of 2018 in Coffs Harbour.
Hyundai's Neuville was seventh, three places and almost 10 seconds clear of Ogier, when his left rear tyre punctured following a jump, and shortly after he slid into a chicane and stalled the engine.
It left him in 10th place, three behind Ogier in his Ford Fiesta who was helped by teammates Teemu Suninen and Elfyn Evans deliberately slowing before the finish to bump him up the leaderboard.
"I pushed like crazy in the final stage, the conditions were worse than this morning. I was on the limit, I could not have done more," said Ogier, who won in Australia in 2014 and 2015.
"That was some good news Neuville has dropped time."
The Belgian, who won in Australia last year and is gunning for his first world drivers' title, said he was disappointed with the puncture but remained confident.
"The car is okay. The stage was okay. A different tyre strategy to Ogier. I cannot do much more," he said.
Both of them suffered from starting first on a dry day, struggling for grip as they brushed aside a top-coating of loose gravel to leave a cleaner line and more traction for those behind.
Norway's Mads Ostberg lead a Citroen one-two after day one, ending 6.8 seconds clear of Ireland's Craig Breen who overcame brake problems.
Estonian Ott Tanak, who has an outside shot at the title, 23 points behind Ogier, came fifth after an error-strewn day in his Toyota.
Andreas Mikkelsen was the only major retirement with the Norwegian parking his i20 with suspected radiator damage after crashing into a ditch.