Sebastien Loeb and Citroen clinched an utterly dominant victory in the World Rally Championship's first visit to Bulgaria, with the champion leading a top-four sweep for his manufacturer.
Bulgaria was the first asphalt round of this year's WRC, but with three of the remaining six rounds on sealed surfaces, the result is ominous for Ford, which could only manage fifth and sixth as Dani Sordo, Petter Solberg and Sebastien Ogier filled second through fourth places in their works, Solberg and Junior Citroens respectively.
No one looked capable of stopping Loeb from the moment the rally began. He blitzed his rivals on Friday's stages, building a half-minute cushion that he could nurse through the rest of the event, driving conservatively this morning to ensure his fourth win of the season.
"It's been perfect – a very good first day, then the second day had difficult conditions, it was important to just keep the rhythm and not make any mistakes, not take any risks," Loeb said.
Sordo fended off Solberg for second after a tough rally-long battle. At half-distance the Spaniard seemed to have wrapped up the position, but a Saturday afternoon surge from Solberg meant they were just five seconds apart this morning. Solberg trimmed more time from his rival on today's first stage, before Sordo responded with a run of stage wins that allowed him to claim second by 6.8sec.
Ogier was in the fight with Sordo until a misheard pace note saw him spent a minute off-course on Friday afternoon and fall from second to seventh. He was soon back up to fourth, but with the top three out of reach by then, he too cruised to the finish.
Ford had lost touch with Citroen even before an incorrect tire choice saw Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala struggling on inappropriate hard tyres on Saturday morning's damp stages, costing them huge amounts of time. Latvala was slowed further by power steering issues and finished a minute adrift of his team-mate in sixth.
It looked initially like Ford might not even get in the top five, as Kimi Raikkonen delivered his best WRC performance yet to run fifth for Citroen Junior on Friday. But the Finn's great run ended with a crash on the final leg one stage, although he returned under superally to finish 11th – a final-stage off meaning he could not catch 10th-placed Henning Solberg, who was delighted with his first taste of the new S2000 Ford.
Solberg's move to S2000 gave P-G Andersson a chance at Stobart Ford, and he delivered a solid seventh on his return to WRC machinery, ahead of Hungarian driver Frigyes Turan, who had a good rally in an aging Peugeot 307, and Andersson's struggling Stobart team-mate Matthew Wilson.
Thierry Neuville followed up his Ypres Rally podium with a dominant first Junior class win. He had battled with Mathieu Arzeno until the Frenchman was delayed by first a puncture, then a crash.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 3h02m39.2s
2. Dani Sordo Citroen + 29.5s
3. Petter Solberg Citroen + 36.3s
4. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 1m55.0s
5. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 3m17.8s
6. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 4m28.5s
7. P-G Andersson Ford + 5m25.2s
8. Frigyes Turan Peugeot + 7m04.0s
9. Matthew Wilson Ford + 9m28.6s
10. Henning Solberg Ford + 13m06.0s