Sanya - France's Groupama took control of leg four in the Volvo Ocean Race on Sunday after a bold move to the north put them in an ideal position to take a slingshot south from the upcoming trade winds.
Groupama joined renegade team Puma in the north overnight on a track that has taken the teams hundreds of miles in the opposite direction to the finish line in Auckland, New Zealand.
They left chief rivals Camper/Team New Zealand and overall leaders Telefonica to battle it out in the south.
Race meteorologist Gonzalo Infante said the next 24 hours would be crucial for the six teams, with Groupama in the best position at the eastern end of the fleet, despite being over 50 nautical miles behind Camper from the finish.
"Groupama are holding the golden key right now," Infante told AFP.
"Technically they may be further from the finish but they can cover the teams in the south and protect any advances in the north while ensuring they will reach the trade winds first, which could seal the fate of the race."
Groupama skipper Franck Cammas said he was well aware the move had been risky.
"We made the move because we preferred to head away from this light wind area in the south. But we won't be able to avoid it entirely and we will have to go through calm areas before we reach the trades," he said.
Telefonica navigator also warned the leg was not over yet.
"Without doubt our target is still the number one position," the Australian said. "We're not in the gutter being kicked in the head. We've got our head up high, a lot of fight left in us and a long way to go."
Camper continue to lead the leg in distance to finish, with Telefonica 17 nautical miles behind them and Groupama in third position.
Leg four is due to finish around March 8-10, with the race itself running until July.