Loeb caps year with Australian win

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has won a record-equalling sixth rally win of the season after taking a comprehensive victory on this weekend's Telstra Rally Australia in Perth. Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera was second ahead of Ford's Francois Duval in third

Loeb caps year with Australian win

It was a fitting end to a season which Loeb characterised with gritty performances and a consistency record unmatched by any of his peers having retired from just two rallies all year. Loeb has entered the history books to match compatriot Didier Auriol's 1992 effort, a much-deserved achievement after a near-perfect season for the Frenchman.

It was not the end-of-season special that everyone had hoped for, though. With the championship already decided and with team orders lifted, the spectators were promised a fierce battle between the works drivers. Fans of veteran Carlos Sainz were also preparing to wave goodbye to their hero on the final rally of his career.

But the Spaniard was out of action before the rally had even kicked off after suffering an accident during Wednesday's recce. The Citroen driver hurt his neck in the incident and was advised to skip the event and say his goodbyes from the sidelines.

It seems Sainz's retirement was a precursor to what was a rally littered with top-driver DNFs. Markko Martin was the next victim completing just one stage on Thursday evening before his Ford engine decided it had enough.

Three stages later and Subaru's Petter Solberg was the next fly to drop after the Norwegian hit a rock and broke his steering while running in second spot. Like Loeb, Solberg had been gunning for his sixth win of the season, alas he will have to wait until next year to have another go at the record.

Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm received a similar kick in the teeth the following day when he retired on the first stage of the second leg while enjoying a 21.4s lead over Loeb. The Finn was trying desperately hard to secure his second win of the season in the 307 WRC, but pushed that little bit too hard and was out.

With the retirement of four works drivers, what had been a mouth-watering prospect at the start of the event had now turned into a thirst for excitement with Loeb nearly a minute ahead of second-placed driver Rovanpera with Duval over half a minute further back in third while Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen was covering fourth spot nearly two minutes down on the Belgian. And that was only after SS10.

There were huge sighs of relief then when first Solberg then Gronholm returned to the action under the SupeRally restart system to carry out testing on their cars, but, above all, to just have some fun notching up stage wins while the remaining four drivers plodded their way to the finish in the same order they had been in since Gronholm's retirement on SS10.

Eager to get another stage win under his belt, though, Gronholm pushed that little too hard and crashed out for the second time on the penultimate test of the day.

Local Group N driver Chris Atkinson was fifth in his Subaru Impreza WRXs, ahead of Production WRC Mitsubishi Lancer driver Xavier Pons - who will no doubt be rueing the decision to use this event as his dropped-score round of the season. Fellow Australian Group N Subaru runner, Cody Crocker, was seventh ahead of Toshihiro Arai in the Subaru Impreza, who rounded out the top eight.

The tussle for the Production WRC crown was enthralling from the off with pre-rally points leader Jani Paasonen on course for the title through Friday, but on Saturday was hit with mechanical problems at the beginning of the second leg and he dropped out of contention and then out of the rally completely.

Subaru's Alister McRae was then in prime position to take the title and looked certain to take the honours and the event class win before he stopped out on stage on SS22 with just three more tests left to contest. The retirement handed fellow Subaru driver Niall McShea his first major international title.

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Day 3am: Loeb presses on
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