Marcus Gronholm came through to win the Rally New Zealand for a record fifth time on Sunday, but the battle with Sebastien Loeb, which went right to the very end, was what made it so memorable.

Indeed the Hamilton-based event was easily the most exciting WRC round of the year to date as the two main championship contenders gave it their all to try and come away with the maximum ten points.

Gronholm took the led from the off on Friday and despite suffering from the 'flu, blitzed his rivals on the first stage - 7.2 seconds up on Loeb, who was 'best of the rest'. The double world champion then set the marker again in SS2 - the slippery 43.88 kilometre Waitomo stage, the longest of the event and once more he was more than 7 seconds up on Seb, who opted for tyres that were too soft. As such Marcus went into service A at Mystery Creek with a 14.8 second advantage.

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In the afternoon loop, Loeb came back, but while the Frenchman won both stages, Gronholm was only fractionally slower in both SS3 and SS4 - repeats of Pirongia West and Waitomo - and as a result lost only 1.3 seconds in total. The double world champion eventually finished the day with a 13 second cushion, having conceded another 0.5 seconds to his chief championship rival in the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special, SS5.

On the second day though the pendulum swung more in Seb's favour and it was the Frenchman who set the pace in SS6, 3.1 seconds up on Gronholm.

Marcus responded in the next test however and thanks to a combination of his third stage win of the event - and the fact Loeb was only fifth fastest through Possum, the Finn took the margin back up into double figures, from 9.9 seconds to 14.9 seconds.

The Franklin test, SS8, at 31.58 kilometres though proved to be the turning point and with Loeb 11.3 seconds quicker than Gronholm, who complained that his car was sliding all over the place after opting for the wrong tyres, it was suddenly very tight.

Going into the second dash through the Mystery Creek super special, ahead of the mid-day halt, Gronholm's lead was down to just 3.6 seconds and although he managed to gain a few more tenths there, with another stage win, the gap was now just 4 seconds.

Following the break for lunch Loeb put in a charge on Saturday afternoon, winning both SS10 and SS11. Furthermore while he was only 0.3 seconds up on Gronholm in Te Akau South, he was 5.4 seconds faster in Te Akau North, something that was enough to push him up into P1.

With only 1.7 seconds separating them though the scene was set for a thrilling final day and leg 3 didn't disappoint.

Indeed on the first loop there WAS virtually nothing between the two, until SS14, when Loeb inched ahead in his Citroen C4 WRC to go into the remote service zone at Raglan with a 2.9 second cushion.

On the repeat runs though, Gronholm bounced back, winning all three tests and going back top in the second run through Whaanga Coast 2.

That wasn't enough to decide things however and with only a 0.7 second advantage it went all the way to the wire and the third run through the Mystery Creek super special.

Marcus held on there to take the maximum ten points - even though Loeb took the stage win - and he eventually secured the victory by just 0.3 seconds, the closest ever finish in the history of the WRC.

The result increases the Finn's lead in the drivers' championship over Loeb, from 8 points to 10, with five rounds to go.

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile completed the rostrum in the second BP Ford Focus RS WRC car, over 1.5 minutes off the top two, but also nearly a minute up on the squabble for fourth.

Mikko lost time in the first loop on Friday, when like Gronholm, he opted for the wrong tyres. After that he was never in contention for the win - nor though was he ever under any threat in third.

As such he had a pretty lonely event and while he still set some very good times, including 11 in the top three, he had no reason to push to the max. Mikko's third place though, combined with Gronholm's win was enough for BP Ford to extends its lead over Citroen in the manufacturers', from 41 points to 46.

Subaru's Chris Atkinson took P4, overhauling Jari-Matti Latvala's Stobart Ford in the final 'proper' test of the event. The Aussie had finished the first day 7.8 seconds up on Latvala, but lost out on day 2 in SS6 and eventually ended up 10 seconds adrift. A charge on the final day though saw him cut the gap and in the end he came out ahead by 4.6 seconds.

Citroen's #2 driver, Dani Sordo was next up in sixth, after a solid if unspectacular performance. Sordo was only 4.1 seconds behind Latvala at the end of Friday's leg, but was unable to keep up with the Finn and Atkinson on days 2 and 3. Consequently he finished more than a minute back.

Petter Solberg had to make do with seventh, after yet another torrid event in which he was less than happy with his Impreza WRC car pretty much throughout. On Friday the Norwegian complained of handling problems and despite the best efforts of his mechanics overnight still wasn't pleased on Saturday. Although he did set some good times - excluding the super specials, he was more often than not at the wrong end of the top ten.

Suzuki's Junior Rally Championship star, Urmo Aava took the final drivers' point in eighth in his privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05 and the Estonian had every right to be pleased.

Stobart Ford duo, Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson completed the top ten, and while the former took the final manufacturers' point, he threw away the chance to get any drivers' points on day 2, when he hit a bank in SS8 and then had to stop twice to clear mud from the radiator of his Focus. As a result he lost over 6 minutes, tumbling from 8th to 10th. Although he got back in front of Wilson on the final day, the damage had been done.

Outside of the top ten, Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra was eleventh, followed by OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl.

Stohl lost time on day 1 when he went off the road in SS4 and was unable to re-join. He re-started under the SupeRally on Saturday and then used the remainder of the event to fine-tune the set-up on his Xsara WRC, ahead of the other two gravel events in Japan and GB.

Of the other 'works' drivers', Luis-Perez Companc finished just outside the top 20 in the #1 Munchi's car. His hopes of getting a decent finish though disappeared on SS1, when he went off the road and struggled to get back on, losing over 6 minutes. Although he climbed back up to 12th just behind his team-mate, an error in the penultimate stage undid all his hard work.

There was only one significant retirement, Subaru's third driver, Xavier Pons, who crashed out on days 1 and 2.

Although the first incident was not significant, the one on the Saturday, when he rolled his Impreza proved more problematic and the damage caused meant he was unable to re-start again on the Sunday. All-in-all the Spaniard managed just four stages at speed - a long way to go for such little mileage.

In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category Niall McShea started the final leg with a 60 second lead, but was unable to hold off a hard charging Toshi Arai, who went in front in SS17.

Arai eventually took the PWRC win by 2.6 seconds, while Richard Mason was third in the category to give Subaru a 1-2-3 finish.

Gabriel Pozzo was the best placed Lancer driver in fourth, followed by fellow Mitsubishi runners, Fumio Nutahara, Armindo Araujo, Juho Haninnnen and Martin Rauam, who filled positions P5 to P8.

Arai's win puts him in a commanding position in the PWRC standings, 24 points up on his nearest rival, although the Japanese driver only has one more event left, as he has opted not to nominate Ireland and GB.

The WRC now takes a one-month break, before the back-to-back asphalt events in Spain and France in early to mid-October.