Kris Meeke claimed his third successive victory in the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge with an astonishing charge at the Belgium Ypres Rally.
The 29-year-old Ulsterman pressed the home favorite, Freddy Loix, into a mistake that denied the Ypres veteran a record sixth victory on the event - and went on to claim a famous debut win.
Second place went to the works Skoda Fabia S2000 of Jan Kopecky, the only man who could keep in touch with the Meeke-Loix battle all through the event.
The recovering Loix won both of the final two stages in his Benelux Peugeot 207, and when a dramatic last-minute puncture dropped Juho Hanninen's Skoda to fifth, he was able to finish in third place. Loix was lauded for a well-deserved podium place after leading for 10 of the event's 16 stages - and crucially holding the rampant Meeke's championship advantage back to only six points.
A huge crowd of Belgian cognoscenti gave Meeke's Peugeot UK-entered 207 a rousing welcome at the finish line in Ypres in recognition of a tremendous performance.
"It was incredibly close and I have to congratulate Jan Kopecky and Freddy for such a great battle," Meeke said.
"When it's this close it's fantastic. To have three wins with only four rallies gone is great, and it's nice to have those points on the board but there's a long way to go yet. Ypres, though, has been an amazing experience."
Despite losing out at an event he was widely expected to win, Loix was magnanimous in defeat.
"Yes of course it's disappointing because we did a great rally," he said. "I got the flat tyre, it's my mistake but we got back to the proper speed and I'm happy to be on the podium.
"I have to congratulate Kris he did the perfect rally, it was unbelievable."
Abarth's top runner, 2006 IRC champion Giandomenico Basso, lost out on fourth place when he, like Hanninen, suffered a puncture on the final stage and slipped back to eighth. The misfortune for these two IRC frontrunners promoted Peter Tsjoen and Gilles Schammel in their Peugeot 207 S2000s to fourth and sixth respectively.
Seventh place went to the mightily impressive Dutchman Jasper van den Heuvel's Group N Mitsubishi Evo X, while the 2WD honours were claimed by his countryman Marcel Piepers, marking Honda's return to the IRC with a 16th place finish overall.
The IRC continues in three weeks at the Rally Russia, the Vyborg-based gravel event taking place on July 9-11.Leading finishers:
Pos Driver Car Time
1. Kris Meeke Peugeot 2h32m16.3s
2. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 20.4s
3. Freddy Loix Peugeot + 1m40.5s
4. Pieter Tsjoen Peugeot + 2m35.3s
5. Juho Hanninen Skoda + 3m35.1s
6. Gilles Schammel Peugeot + 4m06.4s
7. Jasper van den Heuvel Mitsubishi + 4m06.5s
8. Giandomenico Basso Abarth + 4m24.9s
9. Luca Betti Peugeot + 5m48.3s
10. Corrado Fontana Peugeot + 6m24.5s