Handed the initiative on Saturday morning, Francois Duval kept his poise behind the wheel long enough to celebrate his maiden World Rally Championship event win on Rally Australia.
Despite his vow to keep up the sort of pace he showed on leg two, the Belgian drove sensibly over the final six stages, and still managed to increase his advantage over second placed Harri Rovanpera. The Mitsubishi driver had started the day third overall, but still only 32secs behind Duval, but Colin McRae's untimely demise at the mid-leg service eased the pressure on the Finn, who was able to coax his Lancer WRC to the finish.
McRae had already lost second to Rovanpera by the time a clutch change put him OTL during service, and the end of the battle allowed Duval to maintain Citroen's winning run on an event where Subaru looked to be the class of the field before Petter Solberg's meeting with a kangaroo on Saturday. The SWRT team still had something to cheers, however, as local hero Chris Atkinson
continued to set fastest stage times as he clawed his way further up the leaderboard.
Dumped out of the lead by steering problems on day one, the Aussie was back in the points overnight into the third leg, and immediately claimed fifth from Gigi Galli on the opening stage. McRae's retirement then elevated him to fourth and, although the gap to Manfred Stohl looked insurmountable, Atkinson set about dismantling it stage by stage. Just eight seconds split the Subaru driver from a potential podium heading into the final test, but Stohl proved equal to the task, conceding just two seconds to take another piece of silverware for his privateer Citroen
Galli wound up fifth in the second Mitsubishi, while Roman Kresta and team-mate Toni Gardemeister showed the potential of the new 2006-spec Ford Focus RS WRC by each claiming stage wins on the final day. Sadly for the Finn, however, his presence in the rally was ended on the very next stage, leaving Kresta, who spun early in the day, to soldier on to sixth.
Dani Sola's workmanlike effort in the privateer 2004-spec Focus eventually yielded points in seventh, with Armin Schwarz going some way to making up for McRae's disappointment by pushing his Skoda into the final top eight spot.
Completing the top ten overall were leading PCWRC runners Toshi Arai and Mark Higgins, with the Japanese driver not only winning the class but edging closer to the world title.