Sebastien Loeb has moved into the World Rally Championship lead after winning Rally Mexico for the fourth time in his career.
Petter Solberg narrowly beat Sebastien Ogier to second in a final stage shootout - just a second separating the pair at the finish – while Rally Sweden winner Mikko Hirvonen had to settle for fourth. Kimi Raikkonen's tough rally switch also continued with an incident-packed first day ending in a multiple roll.
Loeb dominated the second half of the event, making the best of his road position on the first day to complete leg one in third, before unleashing astounding speed on Saturday to turn a 27sec overnight deficit into a lead of 55sec. Loeb then cruised through today's stages at a very leisurely pace to clinch the win.
"Finally, a victory and back in the lead of the championship," he said. "It was important after Sweden to win here. It's only the start of the championship but I'm really happy. We had a really good drive yesterday. Now it's looking good."
Prior to Loeb's charge, Solberg had led the opening day ahead of Ogier. The non-works Citroen pair then battled for second in Loeb's wake, going into the deciding superspecial with Ogier ahead by a scant 0.6sec.
Ogier had been edging ever closer to Solberg since Saturday morning, but the former World Rally Champion was 1.7sec quicker than his young rival on the superspecial and managed to reclaim second by a tiny 1.1sec margin – to Solberg's ecstatic, tearful, delight.
After their triumph in Sweden, Hirvonen and Ford had a miserable time in Mexico. The Finn was hampered by running first on the road on Friday, but generally lacked pace all weekend. Only late team orders allowed him to get past team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and up to fourth.
"It was a very difficult weekend for the whole team," Hirvonen admitted. "We never really had the speed. Lots of small mistakes on my side as well. In the end I'm glad we got the points we could and I just want to leave it behind and go on to the next rally."
Latvala had no qualms about handing fourth to Hirvonen even though he had been the faster Ford driver all weekend.
"We are the second driver this year and that's part of our job," said Latvala. "Mikko needs these points more now for his title against Loeb. We want to give him as good a chance in the fight as possible."
Henning Solberg took sixth for Stobart Ford despite brake problems, ahead of Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra, as attrition hit the rest of the WRC field.
Citroen number two Dani Sordo was running ahead of the Fords in fourth until a Saturday morning error left him with broken suspension. The same stage saw both Matthew Wilson (Stobart) and debutant Ken Block (Monster Ford) crash out – although the latter had impressed with his pace on his first WRC outing, often matching Wilson.
Raikkonen's rally went awry early on when he bent a steering arm on the opening stage then stopped for half an hour with a fuel system fault on SS2. He crashed for good five stages later.
Former Citroen WRC driver Xevi Pons announced his return to the series by winning the S2000 class after a close battle with fellow Ford driver Martin Prokop. An alternator glitch halted early leader Michal Kosciuszko, while Eyvind Brynildsen crashed on the opening morning.
There was nothing to choose between Armindo Araujo and Toshi Arai in the Production division until the latter's brake fluid boiled and caused him to go off on a road section. He rejoined to take a distant second behind the victorious Araujo.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 3h42m41.7s
2. Petter Solberg Citroen + 24.2s
3. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 25.3s
4. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 1m47.5s
5. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 2m15.1s
6. Henning Solberg Ford + 2m48.0s
7. Federico Villagra Ford + 10m13.4s
8. Xevi Pons Ford + 18m44.4s
9. Martin Prokop Ford + 19m02.0s
10. Armindo Araujo Mitsubishi + 21m32.5s