The Targa lead is bouncing between well-known tarmac rally specialists over the first three days, with Glenn Inkster and Spencer Winn hanging on leading into Friday's action.
The MItsubishi Evo duo Iwere back in front of Day 2 leaders Tony Quinn and Naomi Tillett in their Nissan GT-R35 as the annual Targa New Zealand event rolled into Palmerston North at the end of the third day.
After 182.3kms of closed special stages between Auckland and New Plymouth on Tuesday Inkster and Winn, who finished second to Quinn and Tillett in last year's event, held a 14 second lead, each pair having claimed three stage wins apiece.
After a further eight stages totaling 197.4kms on Wednesday however, Queensland-based expat Scot Quinn and Australian co-driver Tillett had turned that deficit into a 22 second lead by the time they reached the event's overnight base at Taupo.
With outright wins - over either Inkster or Subaru pair Leigh Hopper and Simon Kirkpatrick - in six of the seven stages the day certainly belonged to Quinn and Tillett.
Yesterday, however, the pendulum swung back in the direction of Inkster and Winn, their lighter, nominally more nimble Mitsubishi Evo 6.5 absolutely flying over the shorter, tighter stages west of Waiouru and south into the Rangitikei.
In the first Inkster and Winn dead-heated for first with Quinn and Tillett then - after trailing the Nissan by just three seconds in the second - the Mitsubishi pair won the other three, beating the Quinn/Tillett Nissan by 12 seconds through the 29km Mangahoe stage west of Hunterville then 17 seconds in the first run through the 27.77 km Marton 1 (site of the in famous 'Cop's Corner') and 11 seconds when the stage was repeated immediately afterwards.
As he reflected on his day at parc ferme in Palmerston North Inkster said that taking back the lead was all about controlled aggression - and confidence in the Federal tyres he is now running.
"With the Marton stage repeated it made up almost 60% of the total special stage mileage today so we knew we had to beat Tony there, but you know, he was on to us because we both went crazy fast through there and it was probably only on a couple of blind crests that I made any time on him.
"What actually surprised me was the time we were able to gain on the third stage, Mangahoe. It was new to both of us but we managed to put 12 seconds on Tony in there."
Splitting the Quinn/Tillet Nissan and the Hopper/Fitzpatrick Subaru for third spot in the first stage yesterday was the revitalized Nissan GT-R35 of Auckland pair Harry Dodson and Glenn Cupit.
The pair had been running in a similar position on the first day until slowed by what turned out to be an injector problem and stopped when they broke a front diff and axle in the first stage on the second day.
The veterans of as many as 15 Targa events were not about to give up though, freighting a new diff, set of axles and injectors from Auckland to Taupo where they were fitted yesterday afternoon.
Unfortunately, after a good start on Thursday the sophisticated Nissan's turbocharged V6 engine dropped into limp-home mode at the end of the third stage and the pair were back to square one, albeit with every intention - 'it's Targa thing," said a stoic Dodson from Marton this afternoon, "you never give up, ever!" of being back on the road tomorrow.
One of the leading combinations who won't unfortunately, is Leigh Hopper and Simon Kirkpatrick, out of the event with a broken camshaft.
Also striking trouble were Metalman Classic class front-runners Mark and Chris Kirk-Burnnand from Wellington who had a front suspension mount pull away from the chassis cross-member of their BMW M3 on the second day.
That stopped them in their tracks though like Dodson and Cupit they were planning to return to the event once they had fixed the cross-member.
In their absence it was left to Auckland-based family-members Barry and Stephen in their M3 to champion the Kirk-Burnnand cause, the father and son duo winning their class in the third stage today and finishing second in three of the five others.
Early event class leaders Stuart Rose and Gary Renall managed to retain their lead in the overall event standings though this time they only won two stages, conceding one to the Kirk-Burnnands, and two to Craig Pilet and Lincoln Jones from nearby Marton in their V8-powered Holden Torana SS
Making the most of their local knowledge Pilet and Jones finished second in the Mangahoe stage west of Marton then topped the time sheets in their class in both Marton stages, winning the first by seven seconds from Foxton pair Bevan Claridge and Jason Easton and the second by 10 seconds from Barry and Stephen Kirk-Burnnand who remain second overall after the third day of competition.
"It's obviously a shame about Mark and Chris' car," said Barry, "but Stephen and I are actually having a ball. Everything's going really well, we've got a good hard brake pedal, the tyres are hanging on and it's been magic, just magic today, no dramas at all."
In the Modern 2WD class, meanwhile, the winning streak by newly-weds Gavin and Amy Riches (Porsche GT3 Cup Car) finally came to an end - albeit briefly.
"We missed an intersection first time around," said Ft Myers, Florida-based expat Riches. "We must have lost 30 or so seconds getting back on course and that was enough for Mark (Whyte) to beat us."
Heading into this year's event Whyte and co-driver Tracey Lance (Toyota Altezza V8) were the form pair in the Modern 2WD category but the new GT3 Cup Car-based Porsche of the Riches had up until today's first run through the Marton stage been unbeatable.
Though it is over 30 years since Riches has lived here he has competed in the Targa New Zealand event twice before and says that after the first couple of days it all comes back to him.
"I am loving the roads and the camaraderie and I'm definitely looking forward to the next two days," he said.