Sebastien Loeb remains unbeaten in the 2009 World Rally Championship after clinching victory in the Rally of Portugal.
The Citroen driver came home half a minute ahead of main rival Mikko Hirvonen, as the Ford man had to settle for second yet again.
Loeb made the weekend harder for himself by going off at the first corner of the opening full-length stage on Friday morning. That dropped him to seventh, with Jari-Matti Latvala taking an early lead for Ford.
But the Finn's awful start to 2009 continued when he had an enormous accident on SS4. Remarkably neither Latvala nor his co-driver Miikka Antilla were hurt when their Ford Focus rolled down a huge drop.
Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo then moved to the front briefly before amazingly repeating Loeb's error when the Ourique stage was re-run. He fell back to third and let Hirvonen end day one on top.
Hirvonen hoped he had enough of a lead to stay ahead when running first on the road on Saturday, but he was to be disappointed. Loeb blitzed the entire leg, winning every stage and turning his 20s overnight deficit into a lead margin of nearly half a minute going into the final day, and had no trouble maintaining that advantage through Sunday.
"It's incredible. Apart from missing that junction, it was a perfect rally," said Loeb. "There were no problems with the car. We were really on the limit on the time, and finally we have won now, so I'm very, very happy."
He added that he had still been optimistic of victory even after his early error.
"I said 'okay, it's not a good start, but everything is still possible' and I was really motivated to try to catch back up again," Loeb said. "On Friday afternoon it was difficult because I expected to be better, but Saturday was a perfect day."
Sordo ended up a distant third, comfortably clear of Petter Solberg's self-run Citroen, with the Norwegian happy that he had got the maximum possible from his aging Xsara WRC.
Returning former world champion Marcus Gronholm looked set for a comeback podium at least as he fought for the lead on Friday, only for an accident on Saturday morning to end his weekend.
Henning Solberg, who briefly led after winning Thursday night's superspecial, took fifth for Stobart Ford, benefiting when his team-mate Matthew Wilson went off on the last full-length stage and burned his clutch out trying to get back on the road.
Solberg had earlier been delayed by brake issues, as had Adapta Subaru's Mads Ostberg, who eventually claimed a career-best sixth. He was battling with Citroen Junior's Evgeny Novikov until the Russian crashed this morning, and then gained another place from Wilson's incident.
"I'm obviously very happy," said Ostberg. "It didn't start well, but it just went better and better, and the speed improved during the weekend."
Conrad Rautenbach was on course for seventh until an accident on SS17 that left his Citroen C4 on fire. With Sebastien Ogier breaking a steering arm on Saturday, Rautenbach's crash meant all three Citroen Junior drivers failed to score.
The attrition ahead allowed Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra and works Ford driver Khalid Al Qassimi to pick up the final points.
Local hero Armindo Araujo received a rapturous reception from the Algarve Stadium crowd as he clinched his first Production WRC win in ninth overall, taking the class championship lead in the process.
Patrik Sandell's hopes of a third straight Production win had ended with a Friday morning crash, with Araujo then hitting the front when early leader Nassar Al Attiyah suffered broken steering. Patrik Flodin briefly grabbed the lead from Araujo on the second day, only to then roll and let the Portuguese driver enjoyed a comfortable run to the finish.
Michal Kosciuszko dominated the Junior battle, winning by over five minutes as his rivals all hit trouble early on.
Pos Driver Car Time 1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 3h53m13.1s 2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 24.3s 3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 1m45.4s 4. Petter Solberg Citroen + 2m44.6s 5. Henning Solberg Ford + 5m46.3s 6. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 6m20.8s 7. Federico Villagra Ford + 12m59.5s 8. Khalid Al Qassimi Ford + 18m21.7s 9. Armindo Araujo Mitsubishi + 22m18.5s 10. Martin Prokop Mitsubishi + 23m25.6s
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