Hirvonen takes win and points lead

Mikko Hirvonen has taken a one-point lead in the World Rally Championship after clinching victory in the Rally Poland

Hirvonen takes win and points lead

But Ford's potentially perfect weekend went sour in the final moments of the rally as Hirvonen's team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala incredibly crashed out of second place on the short superspecial that ended the event.

Latvala's retirement and some canny tactics from Citroen allowed Sebastien Loeb to salvage seventh place, not quite enough to stay ahead in the championship standings.

Poland looked like it would see a repeat of Loeb and Hirvonen's famous duel from Finland last year when they were separated by just tenths of a second through Friday's opening stages. But Loeb's weekend fell apart on only the fourth stage, as he smashed his suspension on a tree stump concealed in the sand and had to retire from the day.

That left Hirvonen and Latvala at the head of the field, where they would remain until the amazing events of the final superspecial, which left Hirvonen speechless despite taking a crucial victory.

"It's unbelievable, I can't believe what I'm seeing," said Hirvonen as he watched Latvala try in vain to extricate his Ford from the barriers. "It's fantastic for us. But that's amazing."

The accident handed second to Citroen's Dani Sordo, who had managed to get within 20s of the Fords on Saturday before falling away again. An overshoot this morning finally convinced him to abort the chase and settle for third - which then became second at the eleventh hour.

"It has been tough this weekend," said Sordo when he still expected to be third. "At the moment I am sad, but I know the performance yesterday was very good."

For most of the weekend it looked unlikely that Loeb would manage to score at all, but several final leg retirements helped his cause even before Latvala crashed.

Sadly one of them was Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier, who had driven an excellent rally to all but secure fourth place after a long battle with the Solberg brothers. But the Frenchman stopped with engine problems on the antepenultimate stage.

With Petter Solberg delayed by oil spraying onto his Citroen Xsara's windscreen, his elder brother Henning was able to take third for Stobart Ford, having charged back into contention after an off the pace start to the rally.

The younger Solberg had hoped for better than fourth but said he always knew his outdated car would struggle on the fast Polish stages.

"Being realistic, this is the best result I could get," said Solberg. "Ogier and Henning should have been beating me, as they did. This rally is so fast, and to keep up with this old car is not bad. So in general I'm very pleased."

All three Stobart crews took points, with Matthew Wilson fending off local hero Krzysztof Holowczyc - who was making a one-off guest appearance for the team - to take fifth.

Having rejoined 32nd under superally rules on Saturday, Loeb was up to 12th by this morning, and then entered the top ten when both Ogier and Mads Ostberg dropped out, the latter damaging his Adapta Subaru at the end of a depressing weekend.

Citroen then employed team orders to ensure Loeb took at least one point home, requesting that Junior team drivers Conrad Rautenbach and Evgeny Novikov stop on the stages for enough minutes to let the world champion move up to eighth, which became seventh after Latvala's disaster.

"It's better than nothing," said Loeb prior to Latvala's crash. "One point can be very important at the end of the season, so I'm happen to take it. But it was again a rally to forget for me. I hope it will be much better next time."

For Loeb to lose the points lead seemed inconceivable a month ago, when the question was not whether the Citroen star would win the title, but whether he would win every rally in 2009, having gone unbeaten through the first five rounds.

But three consecutive disasters for Loeb, and Hirvonen's back to back victories in Greece and Poland, have completed an unbelievable turnaround in the title rivals' fortunes and set up a thrilling showdown over the remaining four rallies.

The Citroen Junior duo were still classified eighth and ninth, although Novikov could have easily been in the top five given the pace he showed before crashing on Friday. Even more unlucky was returnee Andreas Mikkelsen, who ran a remarkable fourth in a Skoda Fabia before it suffered engine trouble.

The FIA Junior class saw a surprise win for Kevin Abbring, who shrugged off his Renault Clio's lack of power to take on home favourite Michal Kosciuszko. A superb lead battle was resolved in Abbring's favour when Kosciuszko hit a rock and went off this morning - an incident that also harmed his title hopes as championship rival Martin Prokop finished second. That leaves them tied atop the table, but Kosciuszko has already contested five of the six events each Junior driver is allowed to enter, whereas Prokop has two more rallies in his season.

The lack of a home winner in at least the secondary class was a blow for the Polish fans, but did not detract from a superb weekend for the nation, as the rally - last part of the WRC in 1973 - attracted rave reviews from the drivers, impressed by both its fast and challenging stages, and the large and enthusiastic crowds.

Leading finishers:

Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 3h07m27.5s 2. Dani Sordo Citroen + 1m10.3s 3. Henning Solberg Ford + 2m05.7s 4. Petter Solberg Citroen + 2m24.3s 5. Matthew Wilson Ford + 4m17.5s 6. Krzysztof Holowczyc Ford + 4m33.9s 7. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 19m15.1s 8. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen + 19m20.6s 9. Evgeny Novikov Citroen + 19m26.2s 10. Michal Bebenek Mitsubishi + 23m08.7s 
Hirvonen closing on Poland win

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