Jari-Matti Latvala denied Sebastien Ogier a maiden World Rally Championship victory in an incredible final stage showdown in New Zealand.
The two rising stars went into the deciding Whaanga Coast stage just 6.2 seconds apart, but with Ogier at the disadvantage of running first on the dusty road. Although Ogier looked to have cost himself the win with a half-spin early on the stage, he pulled out enough time to go clear of Latvala again, only to drop a few more costly seconds when he spun almost within sight of the finish, allowing Latvala to win by just 2.4sec.
"It was so, so close," rued Ogier, whose Citroen Junior team only made a last minute decision to contest the event at all. "I did a spin three corners before the end. It's a big shame."
Latvala was thrilled to snatch victory in such dramatic circumstances. His win takes Ford ahead of Lancia to become the most successful manufacturer in WRC history.
"This is maybe the best victory," he said. "Towards the end I was almost off the road myself. I thought it was not enough. He made a little mistake and we were maybe a little bit lucky, but it feels good. I haven't done any fastest stage times on this rally, but consistency counts."
Sebastien Loeb's wild rally ended with third place, the World Rally Champion having another spin on the final stage while making one last bid to catch Ogier and Latvala.
Petter Solberg was also in contention for a podium at least, starting Whaanga Cost third and within 16sec of Ogier, only to crash out on the stage. Initial reports suggest that the Solberg Citroen had a heavy impact with a telegraph pole, but that Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills escaped unhurt.
The rally had been an epic contest from the outset, with event rookie Ogier and Loeb playing starring roles throughout.
Day one saw Ogier, Solberg, Latvala and Dani Sordo swapping the lead repeatedly in an ultra-close fight, while Loeb tumbled out of this pack when he slid into a bridge on SS4, damaging his Citroen's door and costing him 1m40s, which left the champion eighth. Ogier broke free on Saturday and left his rivals trailing with a series of strong stage times. But his performance was utterly overshadowed by Loeb, whose astonishing speed saw him carve into the gap to the frontrunners and end the day back up to second and just 5sec down on Ogier.
It looked like Loeb would swiftly move into the lead today, and sure enough he was first after the opening stage -- but only because Ogier had spun while producing better split times than his pursuer. Still the drama continued, as having finally regained the lead, Loeb made his second big error of the rally and went off and clipped a tree on Whaanga Coast, falling from first to fourth -- albeit only 21sec behind Ogier, who struggled for speed on the long stage as conditions dried up and running first on the road became a severe disadvantage.
That allowed Latvala and Solberg to get back within 5sec and 16sec of Ogier, respectively, going into the last loop, but Ogier managed to pull away slightly on the penultimate stage, setting up the astounding finale on Whaanga Coast.
Slightly off the pace all weekend, Mikko Hirvonen eventually had to settle for fourth in the second Ford, just ahead of Citroen number two Sordo, who faded in the second half of the rally.
Stobart Ford's Matthew Wilson set some excellent times on Friday before dropping back to what became sixth. His seventh-placed teammate Henning Solberg struggled for speed all weekend, as did Munchi's Ford driver Federico Villagra, who only moved clear of the S2000 cars this morning -- and then fell back behind S2000 winner Jari Ketomaa when his brakes faded near the end.
While Ketomaa pulled away from championship leader Xevi Pons to win S2000, local favorite Hayden Paddon utterly dominated the Production class and beat compatriot Emma Gilmour by three minutes in the end.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford 4h04m09.8s
2. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 2.4s
3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 15.2s
4. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 21.3s
5. Dani Sordo Citroen + 25.8s
6. Matthew Wilson Ford + 3m26.0s
7. Henning Solberg Ford + 6m15.3s
8. Jari Ketomaa Ford + 10m19.3s
9. Federico Villagra Ford + 10m49.8s
10. Xevi Pons Ford + 11m13.4s