Citroen number one driver Sebastien Loeb has won the inaugural Rally Bulgaria having held top spot throughout the three-days.
Loeb took the lead straight away on Friday and dominated the opening leg, winning all four tests to build a 28.1 second advantage. He then consolidated his position on day two, and while he only won one more stage, he was second in the other five tests on Saturday, to increase his cushion to 40.5 seconds. That meant he could just pace himself through the final four stages today and he eventually took gold by 29.5 seconds.
The result increases his lead at the top of the 2010 WRC drivers' championship and takes his points tally to 151 - 51 more than his nearest challenger with six more rounds to go and 150 points potentially up for grabs.
"It's all gone off like a dream, really," said Loeb. "We began with a good first day and we consolidated our position on the next one. Today was a bit more relaxed! I like the first Rally Bulgaria! It's got good stages that highlight the qualities of the drivers and the cars."
Loeb's team-mate Dani Sordo held on to secure the runners-up spot, despite coming under pressure from Petter Solberg. Solberg cut the gap to just 3.8 seconds this morning after the first test, but Dani responded and in the end took P2 by 6.8 seconds.
"I've achieved my aim in this rally," Sordo noted. "Seb made a decisive break in the opening stages and once again he was the quickest this weekend. My role was to bag as many points as possible for Citroen for the Manufacturers' World Championship title, and I also wanted to win my duel with Petter. My second podium on the trot has boosted my confidence for the rest of the season."
Solberg meanwhile still had reason to be pleased, even though he couldn't take second. Indeed he won five stages in his privately entered Citroen C4 WRC, an impressive feat - especially as this was his first event with new co-driver, Chris Patterson and only his second with the C4 WRC on tarmac. It was his fourth podium of the season.
"This feels so great. Two weeks ago we didn't even have a co-driver, so being at the podium today feels like a big achievement," said Solberg. "What Chris has done this weekend is absolutely amazing, and being on the podium is a big bonus.
"The car has worked perfectly during the rally and the team has made a great effort in getting us where we are today. It makes me really proud when our little private team is able to actually have a proper fight with the big manufacturers."
Sebastien Ogier, who secured his debut win in Portugal last time out, was next up and fourth. He had been running second early on, but lost time in SS3, when he misheard a pace-note and lost over a minute. That dropped him back to seventh, but he fought back to beat the 'works' Ford's and give Citroen a 1-2-3-4 formation finish.
"We've shown as of now that we're able to fight for a podium on asphalt, which is extremely promising for the rest of the season," said Ogier. "Now we're going to concentrate on the forthcoming Rally Finland."
The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team had a difficult event with Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala unable to challenge the Citroen C4 WRCs. Hirvonen and Latvala ended the opening day more than a minute off the lead and then lost more ground on Saturday with the wrong tyre choice on the first loop.
Hirvonen finished up 1 minute 22.8 seconds off Ogier, and more than 2.5 minutes off the battle for second in fifth, while Latvala took sixth, another minute further back following power steering problems on the second loop on day two.
"I had a good feeling with the car and enjoyed the stages, which were extremely fast in places. But the times weren't as good as we hoped, so we have to keep working hard to improve," Hirvonen said. "With no chance of moving up today, we tested a few things for future rallies. Today was better and I think we learned something that will help on the remaining asphalt rallies."
Latvala added: "It was a difficult weekend but I had a clear run and made no mistakes. I can take confidence from finishing after my retirement in Portugal on the last round."
Further down the order, Per-Gunnar Andersson was seventh on his debut outing with the Stobart Ford team. He put in a respectable performance and increased his pace as he got more familiar with his Focus RS WRC.
"I really enjoyed myself this weekend and by Saturday, I was feeling much more confident with the handling of the car," said P-G. "I was really pleased with some of my split times on both Saturday and today. I had a few minor problems with my pace notes this morning but drove safe this afternoon to ensure I wouldn't make any silly mistakes that could cost me valuable time. I'm just really happy with how everything went and delighted to have been given the chance to drive the [Ford] Focus for this event."
Frigyes Turan rounded out the top eight in his Peugeot 307 WRC, ahead of Britain's Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg, who was using a Ford Fiesta Super 2000.
"I struggled this weekend as it took me longer than I thought to get used to the feeling of driving on tarmac," Wilson reflected. "It's been a long time since I'd driven on asphalt and the stages here are very, very fast. It's been a good learning curve for me.
"The remaining three tarmac rallies should be better for us though - we know some of the stages and I think the car will work better for us. I'll be looking at the data from this rally with my engineers over the next fortnight to see how I can improve my performance on tarmac going forward."
F1 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen came in just outside the top ten on his debut tarmac WRC event. The Finn was right at the front of the pack on the opening day and was running fourth prior to his crash in SS4. He was able to re-join the fold on Saturday under the SupeRally and then hauled himself back up from 26th to finish eleventh. He set a number of competitive stage times, including eight top-six times.
"Our feeling with the car was very good throughout the rally and that's extremely positive for what is only our first asphalt event," Raikkonen noted. "We keep on learning and I have the feeling that we're making progress now."
In the JWRC, Thierry Neuville took the class honours in his Citroen C2 S1600, 52.5 seconds up on Hans Weijs. Todor Slavov was third, followed by fellow Renault Clio R3 man Alessandro Broccoli and Karl Kruuda's Suzuki Swift.
The 2010 World Rally Championship now continues at the end of the month with Rally Finland, which runs from July 29-31.STOP PRESS:
: To see the result following the inaugural WRC Rally Bulgaria - CLICK HERE.