Sebastien Loeb came back from a Friday penalty to snatch an unlikely sixth Rally Argentina victory from his Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier.
As Ogier limped through the final stages with a damaged car having rolled while carrying a comfortable lead this morning, Loeb and Ford's Mikko Hirvonen were able to close in, finally demoting Ogier from first to third on the very last stage.
Loeb's third win of 2011 meant he has not been beaten in Argentina since 2004, and was achieved despite picking up a one-minute penalty on Friday.
"For sure I didn't believe that I could be fighting for the victory at the end of the rally, but I'm really happy with how it's gone today and yesterday," said Loeb.
Ogier had looked assured of victory going into the final day, as he enjoyed a 47sec advantage over Hirvonen and Loeb once nearest rival Petter Solberg (Solberg Citroen) had been delayed by power steering failure and long-time leader Jari-Matti Latvala broke part of his Ford's suspension. But in the final miles of the long Ascochinga stage this morning, Ogier turned in to a corner too early and rolled his Citroen. Although he was able to continue in his battered car, the incident cost him half his lead and left him without power steering for the rest of the rally.
With only a regroup rather than a full service today, Ogier had to nurse his car through the three short stages to the finish, steadily losing more and more time to his fast-closing teammate and Hirvonen. As they headed into the deciding Cabalango power stage, Ogier was only 3sec ahead of Loeb and 5sec ahead of Hirvonen, and that was insufficient and he fell behind both to finish in third.
"I tried to do what I could, but it was just impossible to drive the car now," said Ogier. "It was stupid for sure."
The result completed a remarkable comeback for Loeb, who had been 1m30s off the lead on Saturday after he was penalized for accidentally entering a time control early during Friday's midday service. His recovery drive owed a lot to the searing pace he set through the second half of the rally, but also to the issues that delayed Ogier, Latvala and Solberg.
Hirvonen never quite had the pace to fight for victory, yet still came away with second, just 2.4sec behind Loeb.
"It's been a strange weekend," said the Finn. "We've been really struggling with the speed. Now we're here on the podium so it's good in the end, but it's been difficult. We need to win more rallies."
Solberg was comfortably ahead of Loeb and Hirvonen prior to his power steering issue yet had to settle for fourth. He took some consolation from picking up the bonus points for winning the televised power stage.
Mads Ostberg had a quiet run to a distant fifth for Stobart Ford, ahead of local hero Federico Villagra (Munchi's Ford). Ostberg's teammate Matthew Wilson had been close to the Norwegian until first a puncture delayed him then a watersplash upset his Ford's engine this morning, leaving him eighth.
Latvala had to settle for seventh in a rally he had dominated for nearly two days, until breaking a compression strut on his Ford in a Saturday afternoon incident that left him baffled.
Hayden Paddon took another Production class win in ninth overall, emerging from day one with a massive lead after issues for his early rivals Patrik Flodin and Michal Kosciuszko.
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 4h03m56.9s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 2.4s
3. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 7.3s
4. Petter Solberg Solberg Citroen + 32.6s
5. Mads Ostberg Stobart Ford + 5m16.8s
6. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford + 6m48.5s
7. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 11m34.5s
8. Matthew Wilson Stobart Ford + 13m32.7s
9. Hayden Paddon Symtech Subaru + 25m43.8s
10. Patrik Flodin Uspenskiy Subaru + 33m34.1s