Sebastien Loeb has returned to the top step of the World Rally Championship podium by taking victory in the Rally Australia.
The result ends a four-month win drought for the multiple champion, who was unbeaten in the first five rounds of the 2009 season but then saw Mikko Hirvonen overhaul him in the standings after a run of accidents and poor results.
With Hirvonen beating Loeb's Citroen teammate Dani Sordo to second, the Ford driver still leads the championship, but the margin is down to a single point with only the Catalunya and Great Britain rounds remaining.
"This win is a good one, because it was a hard fight and as it was a long time that we didn't win, it is especially good to win another one," said Loeb. "But it's particularly good for the championship to win again here. I'm really happy. Spain next, one point behind Mikko, we'll see what we can do but it should be an incredible fight."
Loeb did not look a likely victor for the first half of the weekend. The Frenchman was a sightly muted presence in a three-way battle for third with Sordo and Hirvonen, while Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala held off the hugely impressive Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier at the front of the field.
Latvala and Ogier had both benefited from being further down the running order on Friday, but started to lose ground to the title contenders when it was their turn to run first on the road on Saturday. Errors then dropped both back, with Ogier running off course and Latvala twice losing time with punctures after clipping the scenery.
As the early leaders fell away, the Citroens started advancing. Loeb and Sordo would have ended leg two in a comfortable first and second, having increased their pace dramatically after setup changes, but both slowed at the end of Saturday's full-length stages to drop behind Hirvonen and ensure that the Finn ran first on the road today.
Sordo's quick time on the Saturday evening superspecial meant he was actually the rally leader (by just 0.1sec over the tied Hirvonen and Loeb!) going into leg three, where Loeb quickly pulled away at the front of the field, eventually winning by 12.5sec.
Although Hirvonen soon realized he could not hang on to Loeb, he did his utmost to retain second from Sordo. The pair swapped places repeatedly today, before Hirvonen went into the 13-mile deciding stage with a 2sec advantage, which he managed to stretch to 4.6sec to clinch an important runner-up spot.
"It was a really tough weekend," said Hirvonen. "We were absolutely flat-out from start to finish. Citroen played it really well yesterday so I didn't have a chance [to win] today. I think it would have been the other way around if I was behind [on the road]. We just have to forget this one and move on."
Sordo said he had done everything he could to keep his team leader's title rival at bay.
"I pushed really, really hard," said the Spaniard. "I tried to keep Mikko behind, but it was really difficult and in the end it was impossible. I'm happy, though. I lost second place but it was a nice fight."
Ogier came home an excellent fourth ahead of Latvala, who was naturally disappointed with his result having looked a likely victor early on.
"It was lost with the two punctures," said Latvala. "We had a fantastic start and were leading the rally after Friday but it just didn't work out this time, unfortunately. I'm not happy, but at least we finished."
Reigning Junior champion Ogier was far more pleased with his breakthrough fourth. He may not have equaled his attrition-assisted second place from Greece, but he was far closer to the leaders on pace in Australia.
"It was a very good weekend for us," he said. "We just did a mistake yesterday, but we were able to fight with all the best drivers in the world championship."
Matthew Wilson took sixth following a series of dramas for his Stobart Ford teammate Henning Solberg. The Norwegian fell back towards Wilson after going off on Saturday morning and injuring a thumb in his steering wheel, then ran into severe brake trouble today. Solberg dropped to eighth, before reclaiming seventh from Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra on the final stage.
With Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen Junior) crashing out on Saturday, Khalid Al Qassimi (Ford) breaking his suspension early on Friday, and the likes of Evgeny Novikov and Petter Solberg not making the trip to Australia, the top ten was completed by Group N driver Hayden Paddon - whose result clinched a place on next year's Pirelli Star Driver scheme - and Production class winner Martin Prokop.
Although he beat wildcard entrants Richard Mason and Cody Crocker to the victory, Prokop's hopes of adding the Production title to his already-clinched Junior crown came to an end, as Armindo Araujo did enough to seal the Production championship depending on the outcome of Nasser Al-Attiyah's appeal against his Acropolis Rally disqualification.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 2h52m54.0s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 12.5s
3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 17.1s
4. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 1m35.8s
5. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 2m04.5s
6. Matthew Wilson Ford + 5m38.8s
7. Henning Solberg Ford + 7m30.3s
8. Federico Villagra Ford + 7m51.9s
9. Hayden Paddon Mitsubishi + 15m48.6s
10. Martin Prokop Mitsubishi + 15m57.2s