The final day of this year's Telstra Rally Australia, round ten of the FIA World Rally Championship, provided a fascinating battle between overnight leader Sebastien Loeb and second-placed man Petter Solberg.
Loeb's 5.1-second advantage was turned over on the first stage by the Subaru driver, as Solberg eclipsed his rival on the first run through the Sotico forest complex south-east of the rally's Perth base. The Frenchman returned thanks to a combination of picking a tyre which was better suited to SS22 and Solberg going off into a field, dropping six seconds, on the second test.
The third stage of the day brought the third change at the front of the field as Solberg went back in front – this time, however, he held the position to the end of the event. The Norwegian admitted that, despite heavy rain for the entirety of the test, he was able to control his eight-second advantage through the split times which were being fed to him by the team. Loeb took the wrong tyres for the final loop of the event and ended this year's Telstra Rally Australia 26.6s back. Second remains a very impressive result for only his second visit to the rally, though.
Peugeot's Richard Burns completed the podium positions and extended his lead in the drivers' championship, while Colin McRae won the race to be second Citroen home, edging his fellow Xsara driver Carlos Sainz out of fourth place. Peugeot and Citroen are level at the head of the manufacturers' standings.
The Subaru Impreza WRC 2003s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen ran without problems today.
Solberg's victory is his second of the year. The Norwegian and Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb have been fighting for the lead of the rally since Marcus Gronholm retired late on the opening leg. Solberg didn't lead the rally on his own until the first stage this morning, an off on the next test dropped him back behind Loeb – but he went into the lead again on the penultimate stage, this time making it stick to the finish.
Solberg's team-mate Makinen took the wrong tyres for the first loop of stages this morning – running on an older compound of Pirelli which would have worked better in wet conditions. The four-times word champion elected not to chase Sainz and McRae through the final loop, settling for sixth place and three points on his final visit to Australia.
"This has been a fantastic battle and a really interesting weekend," said Solberg, "I honestly do prefer to go into the final stage in second place; I prefer to be the hunter. I was caught out by some mud earlier in the day when I went into the field, but apart from that everything has gone well. I have to say Sebastien has driven really well, given that he doesn't have so much experience of this event or driving on gravel – but it's a fantastic feeling to win."
Makinen added: "Without me hitting the bank yesterday and taking the wrong tyres this morning, maybe the result could have been different. As it is, I'm pleased to have scored some points and with the way the car ran. Now we're looking forward to seeing what we can do on the asphalt."
At Citroen meanwhile all the Xsara WRCs ran without mechanical problems for the final leg of the event.
In the end the wrong tyre choice for three of the day's four stages cost the Frenchman valuable time in his battle to win his first ever gravel round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Loeb finished the event second, without any major problems through the three days. His performance on only his second ever Telstra Rally Australia drew credit from all quarters.