Sebastien Loeb took the glory on the Rally Finland this weekend and in doing so he ticked off one of his targets for the year, which was to win the event for the very first time.

Coming into the ninth round in the World Rally Championship, the Frenchman had said that he wouldn't take unnecessary risks in Jyvaskyla in his bid to get on the top step of the podium, but in the end he enjoyed a mighty scrap with BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen.

Loeb took the lead from the off, winning the short Killeri super special on Thursday night, before the action got underway 'proper' on Friday.

Related Articles

The Citroen #1 really went for it the next day and on the first two morning loops won four stages outright and tied for honours with Hirvonen in SS2 and SS6 - when they were both joint fastest. Consequently he finished SS7 with a 9.1 second lead.

In the afternoon he managed to successfully defend his lead and while Hirvonen spoilt his run in SS8 and was 0.7 seconds quicker, Loeb was fastest in SS9 and SS10. After winning the repeat run through Killeri SSS, he concluded the opening leg with a 14.4 second cushion.

On day two - the longest of the event - there was nothing much to choose between Loeb and Mikko and it wasn't until the final two stages that Seb finally inched further in front, in part because Mikko had trouble getting off the line prior to the penultimate stage.

Sunday's short finale was always going to be a bit of a formality with only 40 competitive kilometres, and while Loeb spun in the penultimate test, his 18.2 second cushion was more than sufficient to ensure he took the maximum ten points.

The result moves him to within a point of taking the lead in the drivers' championship and it also means he joins an exclusive club as prior to this weekend only six non-Finns had won the event in 57 years - and only three non-Nordic drivers, namely Markko Martin (2003), Didier Auriol (1992) and Carlos Sainz (1990).

"I am absolutely delighted and it has been an amazing fight with Mikko. I could not afford to make a single mistake and it has been flat out to the finish," said Loeb following SS23. "Winning Rally Finland is such an important thing for me. The feeling is amazing."

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile kept Seb honest throughout and never gave up, but like last year, when he was battling with Marcus Gronholm, the 28-year-old just didn't quite have what it took to take P1.

Indeed he only managed to win seven tests to Seb's 15 - and while they were equal fastest in SS2, SS6 and SS22, illustrating to an extent just how close the battle was, on day two, Mikko never got the gap below 10 seconds.

While he hangs onto the lead in the drivers' championship, his failure to win on home soil will only fuel the doubters who question if he has what it takes to stop Loeb securing that record fifth crown.

"I tried my best but I am really pleased for Sebastien," said Hirvonen magnanimously. "He took every chance he needed to win the rally and it has been a fantastic battle. All the rallies from here on now are important for my championship so we will have some amazing fights coming up."

Chris Atkinson was next up and took the final place on the podium, albeit more than 3 minutes further back, which just shows how quick Loeb and Hirvonen were.

Atkinson's event got off to a bad start and he ended day 1 down in seventh place. The Aussie was happier with the relatively new Impreza WRC2008 on Saturday though - and it showed. He charged back up the order, setting top five times in every single test bar one, and overhauled Dani Sordo for third in the final stage of the day. He eventually beat the Spaniard by 13.9 seconds.

"You have to be fast on this rally and the team has done an amazing job to get the car here," he noted. "It has been an incredible event and this is one of the rallies where you want to be on the podium. It's been a great weekend and to get it here feels really sweet."

Further down the order, Dani Sordo emphasised that he is really a contender on gravel with a very good fourth place - and twelve top-five stages times from 24. He finished day two only one second off Atkinson, but opted not to try and fight for P3 on the final leg in order to ensure he scored manufacturers' points for Citroen. Citroen now reduce Ford's lead from 9 points to just 3.

"My fourth place is really important here for the manufacturers' championship [and our battle with Ford]," he confirmed. "I am happy with my performance - but Sebastien and Mikko were in a different class. It was an amazing rally."

Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg completed the top five and while he had been third at the finish of day 1, he slipped back on Saturday, when he was unable to find a good rhythm. He also came under late pressure from his brother Petter, who cut the 30 second gap post-SS21 to just 6.4 seconds at the finish.

"It has been very good rally. I tried hard to keep third place all weekend but I think I have to work harder on myself to keep in the top three for next year," Henning admitted.

Petter, who struggled on days 1 and 2, finished the event on a high with the quickest time in the last test, the 6.46 km Ruuhimaki stage. 'Hollywood' knows though that there is still a lot of work to be done with the new Impreza - at least for him anyway.

"It has been a tough rally and a weekend full of problems, especially yesterday which was unbelievable," noted the 2003 world champion. "Everybody has been working flat out to get the car competitive but it just wasn't good enough. Next rally is tarmac so it will be very tough but we really hope we can be on the case."

Ford privateer Matti Rantanen and Toni Gardemeister completed the points' scorers in seventh and eighth respectively, the former running strongly throughout his home event. Indeed Rantanen posted 15 top-ten stage times and described his run as 'unbelievable'.

"I am very happy. It has been a dream weekend and I hope I have shown how fast I have been. I hope to be in the WRC next year but I just have to get the money together first," he noted. "I am very happy to have won the Spirit of the Rally Award too."

Gardemeister also had a pretty good run in the updated 'B-spec' SX4 WRC and despite injuring his shoulder on day 1, following a jump, took the final drivers' point and two manufacturers' points. It was only his third finish from nine events.

"The rally has been good for us with more development experience on the car and some points for the team," said Toni. "To finish in the top ten is a really good feeling for Suzuki."

Britain's Matthew Wilson and Citroen privateer Conrad Rautenbach were ninth and tenth, with BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT 'third' driver Khalid Al-Qassimi eleventh, albeit more than 3 minutes off P10.

"Ninth overall is a good result for us and better than last year," said Wilson Jr. "It has been a tough weekend but we have enjoyed it and have set some good times."

"It has been a really good weekend and a great learning experience. It is so great to be at the finish and I have managed to keep out of problems," added Rautenbach. "We have worked on our pace-notes and feel we are better prepared now. I am looking forward to Germany."

Of the other World Rally Car drivers, Andreas Mikkelsen and Urmo Aava finished 12th and 16th, having re-started following offs on day 1. BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT #2 driver Jari-Matti Latvala also finished under the SupeRally. Latvala had been third overall when he made a key error in SS3. While he showed good pace on days 2 and 3 - winning four stages, the time lost was too much to make up and he finished way down the order in 39th position. His only small consolation was that he picked up the final manufacturers' point for Ford.

"I really hope I have shown how fast I can drive here. The main thing is we have got the experience so next year we can use what we learned to go faster," noted Latvala.

Stobart Ford's Gigi Galli, Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson, Munchi's Ford WRT duo Federico Villagra and Luis-Perez Companc were the most notable retirees. Galli went out on Saturday in SS16, while running third. P-G also went out in that test - at exactly the same place, while Villagra stopped in the penultimate stage on day 2 and Companc following SS21.

In the Production Car World Rally Championship category Juha Hanninen took the win, more than two minutes up on Patrik Flodin. Hanninen had been battling with Juha Salo for the victory and was 18 seconds or so behind, until his fellow countryman had issues in SS16. Jussi Valimaki completed the P-WRC top three to give Mitsubishi a 1-2-3 result.

"I am very happy to have come to the end of this rally and we have won the P-WRC when sometimes we were not so sure," said Hanninen. "It is a fantastic feeling."

As for the J-WRC, Citroen's Martin Prokop beat Patrik Sandell by just over 15 seconds, while Michal Kosciuszko was third, having dropped out of contention for the win in SS20, when he lost over 1.5 minutes.

"It has been a hard year so far and winning here makes up for last year's disappointment," said Prokop. "We changed everything around on the car and got the set up perfect for today. I am very happy we are winners of the J-WRC."

The championship now returns to asphalt later this month for the first time since January's opening round. The Rallye Deutschland is based in Trier and runs from August 14-17.