Sebastien Loeb wrapped up his 50th win in the World Rally Championship, and maintained his perfect start to the 2009 season, by taking a comfortable victory in the Cyprus Rally.
The Frenchman entered the third and final leg, comprising just three stages, with a near 50-second advantage over second-placed Mikko Hirvonen and, despite the Finn slashing the deficit in half over the first two sections, managed to reverse the trend on the short final test to confirm his half century.
Hirvonen was secure in second, holding more than a minute's cushion over Petter Solberg into the 14th and final stage and, by finishing ahead of the Norwegian, ensured that he and Ford took the eight points. Solberg, meanwhile, completed his pursuit of Dani Sordo's factory Citroen by finishing ahead of the Spaniard on all three of the final day's stages, cementing the final podium spot on only the second outing in his privateer Xsara.
Having dominated day, winning the first five stages to eventually head the field by 41secs over Citroen team-mate Sordo, Loeb kept tabs on the pace on day two, emerging with an enhanced lead despite winning just one stage, but also suffering a fright with his brakes that ensured that he would go into the final day with a degree of caution.
His margin over second place, however, allowed the world champion to take things a little easier, and he appeared content to allow Hirvonen to chip away at the gap. Third on the opening stage of the day, the 30km Foini test, cost him around six seconds to the Finn, as the weekend's rain left the field tackling muddy conditions. The second stage - the longest of the rally at 40km - was a different matter, with Loeb admitting that he had struggled for grip as he continued to run first on the road, and conceded more than half his remaining advantage to Hirvonen
“It was difficult to stay on the road, but I'm okay,” he reported at the end of Anadiou, ''It was muddy,and it was hard to be more confident, but I still need to push and stay focused because of the very changeable surfaces we are encountering.''
The final test of the rally, at only 11km, gave Loeb some reassurance, with Hirvonen still needing to make up some 26secs, and the Frenchman produced a steady run that came within three-tenths of the benchmark set by the other works Ford, piloted by Jari-Matti Latvala, and the M2 entry of Matthew Wilson. With Hirvonen conceding a simialr margin to the Citroen, Loeb was free to celebrate win number 50.
“It's incredible,'' he admitted, ''I remember the records of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, so it's a dream and I'm really happy. But it's not over yet - I want 51 for [co-driver] Daniel [Elena] because he drinks a lot of pastis!”
Hirvonen was magnanimous in defeat, running up the road at the finish to write '50' in mud coating Loeb's car before admitting that he had left himself too much to do after being too cautious while running day one's tarmac stages on the mandatory gravel-spec tyres. He took two of the three stages on day three, but had little chance of bridging the gap to the Citroen driver unless Loeb ran into problems.