BP Ford number two driver, Mikko Hirvonen took his maiden win on the Rally Australia on Sunday, while Sebastien Loeb clinched the 2006 drivers' title despite being out injured.

Hirvonen took the lead on Friday, after Chris Atkinson crashed out in SS6. However Petter Solberg nipped in front in SS7, before Mikko took back the top spot on SS9. The Finn concluded the opening day with a solid 26.2 second advantage over 'Hollywood' and then paced himself through the second leg, watching the split times set by the Norwegian and then responding accordingly. Despite his careful strategic approach, the 26-year-old completed proceedings on Saturday having stretched his advantage slightly and going into the final leg enjoyed a 32.3 second cushion.

The final day went off without incident and he eventually brought his Focus WRC car to the finish 37.1 seconds up on 'Hollywood' - taking his first ever WRC win, Ford's sixth of the season and the Blue Oval's first 'down under'. Mikko will be the last person to win a WRC event in Western Australia for the foreseeable future as the round will move to the east coast in 2008, when the series' looks set to return for an event based around Queensland.

Related Articles

Mikko's win, combined with the fifth place finish of his team-mate, Marcus Gronholm, further strengthened BP Ford's hold on the manufacturers' title, doubling their advantage from eight points to 16, with two more events to run and a maximum 36 points up for grabs.

It was though a bit of a bitter-sweet event for the M-Sport-run outfit and especially for their number one driver, Gronholm. Gronholm needed to finish at least third to keep his slim hopes of taking the drivers' title alive, however an off on the first 'proper' test immediately put him on the back-foot, costing him over 10 minutes. Although Marcus charged back up the pack on Saturday and set five fastest stages times from a possible nine, he had conceded too much time in his off in SS3 and therefore had to settle for fifth position.

As a result, Sebastien Loeb has been crowned the 2006 drivers' champion and regardless of whether or not he returns for New Zealand and/or Britain, he will take his third drivers' title in succession. It was a welcome boost for Kronos Citroen, especially as they conceded further ground in the manufacturers'.

Xavier Pons was the best placed Kronos-run car at the finish, the Spaniard, who was driving Seb's #1 Citroen Xsara WRC, finished the first day 8.2 seconds up on Manfred Stohl and poised to take the final place on the rostrum. Pons though was unable to hold off the Austrian on Saturday and after losing third spot in SS13, dropped further and further behind. He eventually finished the event over 40 seconds adrift.

Stohl meanwhile was delighted to take third spot, and secure his second podium of the season. Manfred struggled a bit on day one, but as the event wore on he was happier with his OMV-branded Peugeot 307 and eased passed Pons early on Saturday and after that was never really threatened. His last podium finish was in Mexico back in March.

Petter Solberg, like Stohl, was chuffed with his finish. Indeed given the season to date for the Norwegian and the Subaru team, second was a big boost and bodes well for the remaining events of the season - and for 2007.

Further-down the order, Jari-Matti Latvala rounded out the top six in his Group N Subaru Impreza and in the process he also took the Production Car WRC win, 30 seconds or so up on Mirco Baldacci. Dean Herridge completed the PCWRC podium, 40 seconds further back. Latvala, Baldacci and Herridge all scored 'senior' WRC drivers' points, thanks to their sixth, seventh and eighth place finishes on the leader-board.

Herridge had been on course to take the PCWRC win at the end of day one - however, he slipped back on Saturday, unhappy with the set-up on his Impreza and with his tyre choices. He also lost time with gearbox problems and therefore had to settle for third.

Of the rest, SupeRally re-starter and early leader, Chris Atkinson ended up ninth, while PCWRC runner, Aki Teiskonen rounded out the top ten. Atkinson began the event by stamping his authority on his 'home' rally and after Gronholm had took the lead following the two super specials on Thursday, he stormed in front on SS3, when the event started 'proper' and built a 13.4 second advantage - winning SS3, SS4 and SS5. Atkinson though went off the road on the next test - SS6 and beached his Impreza. The Aussie slid wide on a left hand corner and bumped two wheels into some undergrowth and loose sand. Although he and co-driver Glenn Macneall and a handful of spectators did their best to rock the car back onto the stage, their efforts were curtailed when the hot exhaust pipe ignited a small brush-fire. The second run through Murray North was therefore cancelled with nominal times awarded to those drivers' that did not complete the test. Although he re-started on Saturday under the SupeRally and made up ground by then any hopes of a decent finish were 'put to bed'.

Fellow 'works' drivers', Daniel Sordo, Henning Solberg and Stobart VK duo, Matthew Wilson and Luis-Perez Companc were also forced out on day one after a variety of problems. Indeed the opening day saw six of the ten leading drivers' sidelined.

SS3 claimed two other scalps - in addition to Gronholm, mentioned earlier, namely Sordo and Wilson. Sordo went out when his Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC car suffered gearbox problems, while Wilson retired after hitting a rock. The impact broke a front-right driveshaft and track-control arm. Wilson's Stobart VK team-mate, Luis-Perez Companc didn't get much further either - Companc went out in the next test, SS4, when his Ford Focus slid off the road, rolled over and came to rest against a tree. OMV Peugeot's Henning Solberg was the only other big casualty - Henning went out in SS6, when he was caught out on a left hand corner and rolled his Peugeot 307 WRC car 50 metres off the stage. He had been sixth overall.

All of them though managed to re-start under the SupeRally, except Henning - Companc eventually finishing 22nd, while Sordo was 23rd and claimed the final manufacturers' point for Kronos. Wilson brought his Focus WRC car home in 27th place.

In addition to Henning Solberg, who was the biggest retirement, reigning Production Car WRC champion, Toshi Arai also went out after rolling. Arai was leading the PCWRC category on Saturday before he crashed out in SS17. Marcos Ligato then took over the mantle in the Production class, but he too was forced out, when he had mechanical problems following service H on Sunday, with just three more stages left to run.

The WRC now heads to New Zealand in three weeks time for the penultimate round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship - and the final round in the FIA Production Car WRC. Rally NZ begins on Friday November 17.