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Loeb stuns Ford with Norway victory

Sebastien Loeb has resisted huge pressure from Mikko Hirvonen to win the Rally Norway - and deal a significant blow to Ford's title hopes

Ford had dominated recent snow rallies, while Loeb had only won on that surface once in his career (in the 2004 Swedish Rally) and crashed in the last Norwegian event.

But even though he ran first on the road all weekend, Loeb was able to match Hirvonen's pace from the start, and then edged away on Saturday.

Hirvonen closed dramatically in the final loop of stages this afternoon and started the deciding Budor test just 7.7 seconds adrift. The Finn had declared that he would take an 'all or nothing' approach, but despite his best efforts, Loeb was actually 2.1 seconds faster through the stage, giving him his 49th World Rally Championship win by 9.8 seconds.

"Mikko has done a really great rally and I had to push on the limit from the first to the last stage," said Loeb.

"Finally, we've done it. It's been very difficult mentally to keep pushing to the end and know that you could lose everything at the last corner of the last stage. It's a lot more exciting when you win with a battle like this."

Hirvonen admitted that he had mixed feelings after one of the toughest fights of his career.

"I'm sad that we came second, but I'm glad we finished," he said. "It was a really, really big and close fight. He was faster yesterday, and that was it. I'm glad about my speed today - I managed to push him really hard."

Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala, winner of the last snow rally in Sweden a year ago, took a low-key third, having only sporadically matched Loeb and Hirvonen's pace.

"It's been a frustrating weekend - not all that I was hoping for," said Latvala, who escaped a minor error in the very last stage. "But at least we got a third place."

Many had tipped Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford) for a podium or possibly even a victory in his home rally, but he lost touch with the leaders on Friday. Set-up changes improved his pace later in the rally and allowed him to charge past Citroen's Dani Sordo and repeat his Rally Ireland fourth place.

Although Solberg's younger brother Petter got his career as an owner/driver off to a fairytale start by winning Thursday night's rally-opening superspecial, his 2006-specification Citroen Xsara could not match the factory cars in the fully-fledged stages. A misfire on Saturday was particularly time-consuming, but Solberg still took sixth place after winning a late battle with Matthew Wilson (Stobart Ford).

"It is a dream," said Solberg. "I never thought this was actually possibly to do in three weeks. With a new team, new mechanics, friends and family, anything is possible. I just have to say thank you to everybody.

"I was so afraid earlier because I had a clutch problem for two stages, I was very, very scared of breaking the clutch, so I'm very pleased to come to the finish."

Wilson's teammate Urmo Aava claimed the final point.

The Adapta Subaru team had a highly frustrating rally, with myriad mechanical problems and some errors consigning Mads Ostberg to a distant ninth on a weekend when he had hoped to star. His teammate Anders Grondal dropped out of contention with a trip off the road on Friday.

Various technical problems and driving mistakes left Citroen Junior's Sebastien Ogier, Conrad Rautenbach and Evgeny Novikov back in 10th to 12th places, but the inexperienced trio showed flashes of promise - with a shock second-fastest time from teenage WRC debutant Novikov on Friday afternoon, and Ogier briefly running in the top six.

But the greatest disappointment of the weekend was surely the clutch failure that ended Per-Gunnar Andersson's rally at half-distance. The Suzuki refugee took two stage wins and held a remarkable fifth overall in his private Skoda Fabia before having to retire.

Patrik Sandell took the first Production victory for an S2000 car in his Red Bull Skoda. He was handed a huge lead when his Friday sparring partner Andreas Mikkelsen went off the road, and then hung on to win the class despite a quick excursion of his own this morning.

Leading finishers:

Pos  Driver              Car      Time
 1.  Sebastien Loeb      Citroen  3h28:15.9
 2.  Mikko Hirvonen      Ford     +     9.8
 3.  Jari-Matti Latvala  Ford     +  1:21.8
 4.  Henning Solberg     Ford     +  3:33.5
 5.  Dani Sordo          Citroen  +  3:52.0
 6.  Petter Solberg      Citroen  +  6:25.4
 7.  Matthew Wilson      Ford     +  6:35.6
 8.  Urmo Aava           Ford     +  6:49.1
 9.  Mads Ostberg        Subaru   + 10:00.5
10.  Sebastien Ogier     Citroen  + 12:49.8

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