Citroen's number one driver, Sebastien Loeb has won the Rally New Zealand today [Sunday], securing his first win at the Auckland event in three attempts.

The Frenchman eventually took the honours by 49.8 seconds, winning the final stage of the day, after pacing himself through SS17, SS18 and SS19.

Loeb is now just one point behind Petter Solberg and well placed to defend his 2004 drivers' crown.

"I'm very happy to win here, it's one of the most exciting rallies, and to win with Marcus and Petter behind was very good," he said. "It's looking better now after having had two rallies with problems and now it seems to be good."

Marcus Gronholm took the runners-up spot, the Finn winning three out of the four tests on the final leg, to ensure he kept second for Peugeot.

"Always it seems to be difficult but at least we have kept Solberg behind and he has won rallies this year," noted Marcus. "Loeb seems to have had a small advantage with the tyres."

Petter Solberg was third, the six points enough to keep him in front of Loeb in the drivers' classification. The Norwegian, who started first on the road on Friday, never really looked likely to threaten Loeb, however then again neither did anyone else...

"It was better than I expected on the first day but obviously we have struggled on this hard surface," reflected 'Hollywood'. "I'm very happy with third place though. We have worked hard on the car since Mexico."

Francois Duval took fourth, to finally open his points account with Citroen. The Belgian has had a dismal start to the year, and he will be hoping this is a sign of better things to come. It was also good for Citroen though as they jumped from fifth in the Constructors' to second, 12 points behind leaders, Peugeot.

"For me it was a very good day," he said. "I'm happy now to finish inside the points for me and Citroen. I hope it will be good for the rest of the season."

Markko Martin snatched fifth place in the final test from Toni Gardemeister, the Finn again losing out towards the close of an event, as he did in Mexico last month. Coincidentally Martin and Gardemeister are the only two drivers' to have scored points on every round this year.

Gardemeister's sixth place though keeps Ford's record in tack and the M-Sport ran squad has now scored points on an unprecedented 48 consecutive events.

"After losing one of our drivers before the start following an accident, a points' finish is a good result and extends our scoring record to 48 rallies," said team boss, Malcolm Wilson. "On the other hand, I'm disappointed Toni lost out to Markko on the final stage. It's the second rally in a row where we have lost places on the last stage."

Chris Atkinson took seventh, his first finish since joining Subaru, and as such his maiden championship points for the Banbury based team. The Aussie though was disappointed, after failing to match his Friday pace on Saturday and Sunday.

"It's good to get to the finish, but it would have been nice to get a better result," he admitted. "It's a bit of a shame that we lost some of the pace we had earlier in the rally. The plan was to build up the speed, but in fact we've ended up doing pretty much the opposite."

Mitsubishi's Gigi Galli came in eighth - the Italian was impressive this weekend, especially as this is the first time he has competed in NZ.

"Our goal was to get to the finish and be in the points, so I think we did our job well," he stated. "We had some technical problems in the first leg and then today we drove these stages for the first time; they are very twisty and complicated but we didn't have any problems."

Manfred Stohl was ninth in his privately run Citroen Xsara, two minutes or so up on Armin Schwarz, who completed the top ten for Skoda, one place ahead of Antony Warmbold.

Schwarz's team-mate, Janne Tuohino, was one of only two works retirement on the event, the Finn retiring on the first stage this morning, with a blown turbo.

"We lost power on the start line of the first stage today [SS17] and there was smoke in the car so we knew it was a turbo problem," he explained. "I drove carefully to reach the finish with the windows open so we could breathe."

Harri Rovanpera meanwhile went out in his Mitsubishi after the final test, with no tread left on his tyres.

"Harri ended up driving with no rubber on the rear wheels on the road section back to Auckland and there was no sense in carrying on like this [and risking damaging his car]," revealed Mitsubishi's technical director, Mario Fornaris.

In the Production Car WRC, Xavier Pons came out top, after a last day battle with Toshi Arai, who took second - 17 seconds separated the two at the finish. They were 13th and 14th on the leaderboard, with Group N winner Cody Crocker 12th.

"When we spun [in SS18] I was frightened we had lost too much time to win, but we kept attacking," said Pons. "The car and tyres have been fantastic and in the end everything went well. I am so happy."

Mitsubishi driver Mark Tapper held on to win the coveted title of first Kiwi in Rally NZ, with Emma Gilmour just a tick over 3 minutes behind. Tapper claimed 22nd overall and Gilmour 27th, also in a Mitsubishi. Tapper takes away the prestigious John Woolf and Grant Whittaker Memorial Trophy for his efforts.

Of the Brits, Natalie Barratt and Lorna Smith were 37th and 38th respectively, the only two to make it to the finish, Mark Higgins retiring on the final stage of the day, while set to finish 18th and fifth in the PCWRC.

After two long-haul rallies, the WRC now returns to Europe for round five - the island of Sardinia hosts the Rally Italia-Sardinia, another all gravel event, on April 28 - May 1.

Despite moving to the spring for 2005 from it's previous autumn date, the character of the event should remain largely the same, featuring medium to fast roads covered in fine gravel. The rally will be based in the millionaire's resort of Porto Cervo, while the service and headquarters will be situated at the industrial port of Olbia. Including 17 stages and 530 competitive kilometres, the three-day event will conclude on Sunday May 1.