Sebastien Loeb will take an eight-point lead into the World Rally Championship decider in Wales next month after clinching victory in Spain.
The Citroen driver led home title rival Mikko Hirvonen, who had struggled for speed all weekend and only gained second via team orders issued to his Ford teammate Jari-Matti Latvala. Sebastien Ogier (Citroen) retired on the final loop.
Loeb's rivals' hopes rested on the champion losing time when running first on the road on the mostly gravel first day – but they would be disappointed when the dust hanging in the air proved a bigger obstacle for drivers behind than the slippery surface was for Loeb.
As conditions improved on Friday afternoon, Latvala moved past Loeb to lead and Ogier closed to within two seconds of him, only for both Latvala and Ogier to lose time with punctures and errors.
Latvala remained second, but fell half a minute behind Loeb – a gap he could not close on the remaining two days on asphalt. In any case, Latvala was always likely to be asked to relinquish second to Ford's title contender Hirvonen, with the switch occurring when Latvala deliberately picked up a penalty for checking in early before the final stage.
Ogier dropped more time with a second puncture on Saturday morning, and was only fifth when an engine problem brought his rally and championship hopes to an end with one stage to go.
Mini's Dani Sordo lost too much ground in Friday's dust to repeat his France podium, but finished fourth ahead of teammate Kris Meeke. Meeke and Sordo took a 1-2 on the bonus points power stage, having correctly taken soft tires for the damp conditions.
Petter Solberg never had chance to join the lead fight, taking a wheel off his Citroen on the very first stage of the weekend.
Mads Ostberg was a lonely sixth in the top Stobart Ford. His regular teammate Evgeny Novikov switched to a Citroen Racing Tecnologies entry this weekend to sample the DS3 and beat Stobart's Henning Solberg to take his first points of the year in seventh. Third Stobart driver Matthew Wilson crashed out of a points finish on the penultimate stage when pressured by Dennis Kuipers' FERM Ford.
Juho Hanninen added the 2011 S2000 WRC class title to his 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge crown by beating Nasser Al-Attiyah to the division victory and 10th overall in Spain. Hanninen's championship rival Ott Tanak's title hopes ended with a crash on the very first stage.
Production champion Hayden Paddon failed to start Friday's leg due to electrical problems, leaving Patrik Flodin to beat Michal Kosciuszko to class victory by just two seconds.
Leading finishers after SS18:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 4h05m39.3s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 2m06.9s
3. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 2m32.4s
4. Dani Sordo Mini + 3m24.1s
5. Kris Meeke Mini + 5m15.0s
6. Mads Ostberg Stobart Ford + 5m54.2s
7. Evgeny Novikov CRT Citroen + 9m31.8s
8. Henning Solberg Stobart Ford + 9m40.1s
9. Dennis Kuipers FERM Ford + 11m13.8s
10. Juho Hanninen Red Bull Skoda + 13m49.2s
Other WRC finishers:
12. Khalid Al-Qassimi Ford + 14m39.0s
16. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford + 17m36.6s
17. Peter van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen + 18m45.7s
25. Daniel Oliveira Brazil Mini + 38m50.0s
Sebastien Ogier Citroen SS17
Matthew Wilson Stobart Ford SS17
Ken Block Monster Ford SS13
Armindo Araujo Italia Mini SS13
Kimi Raikkonen Ice 1 Citroen SS3
Petter Solberg Solberg Citroen SS1
Leading power stage times:
1. Kris Meeke Mini 2m45.7s
2. Dani Sordo Mini + 0.2s
3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 4.9s
4. Daniel Oliveira Brazil Mini + 8.0s
5. Juho Hanninen Red Bull Skoda + 8.9s