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Rally France: Sebastien Loeb clinches final World Rally title

Sebastien Loeb wins in FranceSebastien Loeb clinched his ninth - and most likely last - World Rally Championship title with a commanding victory on home turf in France.

With Loeb having announced last week that he will go part-time in 2013 before a probable switch to the World Touring Car Championship from '14, this season turned out to be his rivals' last chance to try and beat him to a championship in his heyday, and no one could.

Going into this weekend, Loeb declared that his focus would be on sealing the crown by finishing ahead of Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, and that victory would not be essential.

But it always seemed highly likely that Loeb would secure his sixth home victory, his eighth of the 2012 campaign and his 75th in the WRC this weekend, and sure enough he was never headed. The result also gave Citroen another manufacturers' title.

Podium finishers Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen could both celebrate breakthrough performances on asphalt but neither could truly threaten Loeb - although Ford team leader Latvala kept him on his toes until a mistake on Saturday morning.

Hirvonen's third place in the second Citroen was in the bag once the chasing Petter Solberg crashed his Ford early on Saturday, dramatically demolishing an electricity pole in the process.

Citroen Junior's Thierry Neuville delivered his best WRC performance yet to take fourth. The Belgian was a podium threat at first, before a spin and a penalty cost him time and positions. A string of final-day stage wins then brought him back past Mads Ostberg and Dani Sordo.

Ostberg went on to take fifth, while Sordo - so nearly a winner with Mini in France last year - retired late on with broken power steering.

Ott Tanak was a surprise power stage winner, with the bonus points test held at the start of the final loop for a change rather than concluding the rally. The Estonian claimed sixth overall, picking up the place when M-Sport Ford team-mate Evgeny Novikov fell behind him with a messy but not terminal final-morning roll.

Chris Atkinson completed the top eight as he continued to make progress with Motorsport Italia's Mini.

Behind ninth-placed Martin Prokop, Sebastien Chardonnet impressively claimed a point on his World Rally Car debut. Chardonnet is the latest product of the French federation support that helped Loeb and Sebastien Ogier to the top.

Ogier, who won in France in 2011, nearly denied Chardonnet the final point in his S2000 Skoda, after a weekend that saw Ogier's Volkswagen team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen too close for comfort at times.

Circuit racers Yvan Muller and Romain Dumas were 14th and 16th overall following eventful runs.

Leading finishers after SS22:

Pos  Driver                Team/Car          Time/Gap
 1.  Sebastien Loeb        Citroen         3h13m52.7s
 2.  Jari-Matti Latvala    Ford               + 15.5s
 3.  Mikko Hirvonen        Citroen            + 44.1s
 4.  Thierry Neuville      Citroen Junior   + 1m07.3s
 5.  Mads Ostberg          Adapta Ford      + 1m16.4s
 6.  Ott Tanak             M-Sport Ford     + 2m27.9s
 7.  Evgeny Novikov        M-Sport Ford     + 5m51.6s
 8.  Chris Atkinson        Italia Mini      + 6m42.4s
 9.  Martin Prokop         Czech Ford       + 8m46.8s
10.  Sebastien Chardonnet  FFSA Citroen     + 8m59.7s

Other WRC finishers:

13.  Julien Maurin         Maurin Ford     + 12m59.4s
14.  Yvan Muller           Prodrive Mini   + 14m14.1s
16.  Romain Dumas          Automeca Mini   + 16m16.7s
27.  Petter Solberg        Ford            + 35m29.3s

WRC retirements:

     Paolo Nobre           Italia Mini           SS22
     Dani Sordo            Prodrive Mini         SS20
     Daniel Oliveira       Brazil Ford           SS18
     Nasser Al-Attiyah     Qatar Citroen         SS10

Leading power stage results:

 1.  Ott Tanak             M-Sport Ford      10m24.0s
 2.  Thierry Neuville      Citroen Junior      + 0.9s
 3.  Mads Ostberg          Adapta Ford         + 1.8s
 4.  Jari-Matti Latvala    Ford                + 2.3s
 5.  Mikko Hirvonen        Citroen             + 3.6s
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