Armel Le Cleach appeared poised to defy Alex Thomsons brave late challenge to snatch victory in the gruelling Vendee Globe solo-round-the-world race as they head towards Thursdays scheduled finish.

Thomson, a 42-year-old Welshman, pushed to less than 40 nautical miles of his French rival on Wednesday afternoon but by 2130GMT, Le Cleac'h had steadied and opened up a gap of almost 60nm.

Thomson is bidding to become the first non-French winner of the race which started in Les Sables d'Olonne on France's Atlantic coast on November 6.

But his challenge looked to be fizzling out late Wednesday when he was hampered by problems with his automatic pilot on board his Hugo Boss craft.

Should the two men hold position, the Frenchman will cross the finish line on Thursday between 1400 and 1900 GMT, four to seven hours ahead of the Welsh sailor.

Thomson made up 30 nautical miles on Tuesday but his pace slowed during the night leaving his French rival, on Banque Populaire, still favourite to cross the line first.

The Welshman, in a radio link with organisers, complained of fatigue and was pessimistic about his chances. Asked if he would still win, he said: "I don't think I can... I don't have real options anymore."

Both yachtsmen had to sail past Les Sables d'Olonne toward the English Channel to get a favourable wind to bring them back down the coast faster to the finish line.

"Tell him to stay behind," Le Cleac'h told a French Navy helicopter that flew over the Frenchman's boat and asked whether he had a message for Thomson.

Some 300,000 people packed Les Sables d'Olonne and the nearby coast when the race started with 29 competitors. With the stakes high for the two leaders, big crowds are already gathering in the town for the return.

The winner is heading for a record time. A finish before 1202 GMT on Thursday would mean a circumnavigation in 74 days, four fewer than the record held by Francois Gabart since his win in 2013.

Le Cleac'h was beaten into second place for the last two Vendee Globe races. Thomson, whose team is based in Gosport on the south coast of England, was third last time, but abandoned in 2004 and 2008.

Third-placed Jeremie Beyou is only expected in port on Monday.

Vendee Globe standings on Wednesday at 2100GMT:

1. Armel Le Cleac'h (FRA/Banque populaire VIII) at 243 nautical miles from the finish

2. Alex Thomson (GBR/Hugo Boss) at 57.6 nautical miles behind leader

3. Jeremie Beyou (FRA/Maître Coq) at 711

4. Yann Elies (FRA/Quéguiner-Leucémie Espoir) at 1,859

5. Jean-Pierre Dick (FRA/StMichel-Virbac) at 1,860

6. Jean Le Cam (FRA/Finistere Mer Vent) at 1,850

7. Louis Burton (FRA/Bureau Vallee) at 2,905

8. Nandor Fa (HUN/Spirit of Hungary) at 4,518

9. Eric Bellion (FRA/CommeUnSeulHomme) at 5,186

10. Conrad Colman (NZL/Foresight Natural Energy) at 5,288