Sebastien Loeb is on track for an astonishing ninth straight world rally championship after his clear-cut victory in Rally New Zealand left him a 38-point lead in this year's series.
The great French driver pulled away on the final day yesterday to finish nearly half a minute clear of Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen. It was his 72nd victory in a world championship event, and his fifth in seven rallies so far this year.
The short final day was something of an anti-climax after the stirring battle between Loeb and his team-mate over the first two days, the Finn ending Saturday's leg just 6.4 seconds behind after more than 350 kilometres of special stages.
The result had really been a foregone conclusion since Citroen team boss Yves Matton issued team orders, telling his star drivers to ease off, avoid risks and bring home a one-two finish for the team.
Loeb had another ace up his sleeve - he had cannily kept a few of his restricted allocation of soft tyres for the final day, as rain had been forecast.
The rain arrived, making the roads slippery, and Loeb romped away while Hirvonen had to struggle on hard tyres as he had used all his soft ones.
Drivers said the roads were very slippery in places and hard to judge, but Loeb was unfazed.
"It's a great victory," he said. "It was a long weekend with some very difficult conditions.
"The big big fight with Mikko for the weekend was not easy, but we are here now at the end of the rally."
Hirvonen accepted that he could no longer keep up with Loeb and drove sensibly to the finish in Auckland.
"Yeah it was a fantastic weekend -- we had such a great fight for the first two days," he said. "It was really important to get the speed back again because in Greece [the previous round] I wasn't happy with my driving."
The Ford team lost its chance of victory on Friday, when former champion Petter Solberg lost a lot of time with a bad tyre choice and Jari-Matti Latvala lost a lot more time with a crash. Solberg recovered to finish a solid third but Latvala could manage only seventh.
"We came here with a good car and a big opportunity but unfortunately Friday's mistake ended our hopes of a win," Solberg said. "That was sad for the team, but a podium is still a good result."
The big mover yesterday was Belgian Thierry Neuville, who won three of the stages in a private Citroen while the factory drivers took a more cautious approach.
Neuville's advance put pressure on fifth-placed Estonian Ott Tanak, who tried to up his pace but instead rolled his Ford out of the rally on the third-to-last stage.
Kiwi Hayden Paddon had another trying day as his Skoda's rear suspension broke in the morning stages.
"It's like a yo yo in the back," he said. "It's really disappointing."
Paddon had to slow right down but the crew fixed the problem in the service break and he was able to maintain his 12th position overall - in spite of having to stop to change a wheel. More importantly, he won the S2000 class and took over the lead in the world championship in that class.
Masterton driver Richard Mason headed off Dunedin's Emma Gilmour to win the New Zealand championship section of the rally, and he increased his lead in the national championship. Both drove Subarus.
Rally New Zealand, round seven of world championship, final positions
Sebastien Loeb (France) Citroen 4h 04min 51.2s, 1; Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) Citroen 29.6s behind, 2; Petter Solberg (Norway) Ford 1m 36.4s behind, 3; Evgeny Novikov (Russia) Ford 2m 13.6s, 4; Thierry Neuville (Belgium) Citroen 2m 42.4s, 5; Dani Sordo (Spain) Mini 3m 03.1s, 6; Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) Ford 4m 52.9s, 7; Armindo Araujo (Portugal) Mini 9m 36.4s, 8; Ken Block (USA) Ford 10m 30.3s, 9; Manfred Stohl (Austria) Ford 11m 26.3s, 10; Jari Ketomaa (Finland) Ford 12m 35.7s, 11; Hayden Paddon (NZ) Skoda 15m 26.2s, 12 (wins S2000 class); Richard Mason (NZ) Subaru 15m 59.3s, 13 (top NZ championship contender, fastest in Production class); Emma Gilmour (NZ) Subaru 20m 107.4s, 14; Matt Jansen (NZ) Subaru 23m 47.6s, 15.
World championship points: Loeb 145, Hirvonen 107, Solberg 90, Mads Ostberg (Norway, Ford) 80, Novikov 55, Latvala 54.
New Zealand championship points: Mason 138, Gilmour 100, Jansen 75.
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