Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has won Rally de Espana and with Mikko Hirvonen taking the runners-up spot, the stage is set now for a thrilling title showdown in Wales in three weeks time.

Loeb and Hirvonen went into the twelfth and penultimate round in the 2011 World Rally Championship tied on points at the top of the drivers' championship. However after misfortune in Germany, Australia and France, Seb bounced back in Catalunya.

The seven-time WRC champion had expected to lose out sweeping the road on day one's mostly gravel tests, but on the opening loop, running first on the road proved to be advantageous for once and his rivals all struggled in the hanging dust clouds. Organisers increased the gap between the runners from 3 to 4 minutes on the second loop, but in the final test, run at night, it was again an issue, and so Loeb ended the day 30.6 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala.

Related Articles

Overnight the cars were all converted to asphalt spec and despite the switch to the 'black stuff', Loeb didn't have it easy on day two. Indeed Latvala kept the pressure well and truly on and he would have been a bigger threat, if he hadn't lost over 40 seconds on Friday night with a spin and puncture in SS6.

As it was Loeb more or less maintained his advantage though throughout Saturday's 144 competitive kilometres, and on the final day he actually stretched his cushion slightly before the final three tests.

He eventually won by over 2 minutes, although the margin was skewed after Latvala purposely picked up a 2 minute penalty before SS18, so as to bump his team-mate up a place.

"It was really a good rally for us," Loeb told the official WRC site. "We've done the perfect race I would say, no mistakes. We have one point too in the Power Stage. We've done the best we could."

Loeb now re-takes the outright lead in the drivers' championship following his fifth win of the year and thanks to the extra point he got in the Power Stage, will go to Wales eight points up on Hirvonen. His win was also enough to give Citroen the manufacturers' crown.

It wasn't all good though for Citroen, and with Sebastien Ogier forced out in the penultimate stage due to an engine problem it is now a two-horse race in the drivers' championship.

Hirvonen meanwhile had a difficult event and never looked comfortable on the opening two days. He found his form a bit more today and was quickest in SS14, although by then it was all too little, too late. He still got second however as Latvala again sacrificed a position to help his team-mates title challenge.

"It was a tough rally and initially I struggled for pace on the asphalt," Hirvonen conceded. "However, I made some changes to the way I drove, my times improved and my confidence increased. It took me a long time to realise what I needed to do, but I finished with a good feeling and thanks to Jari-Matti's great support, it means the championship is still wide open going to the final round.

"The asphalt rallies are behind me now and it will be an exciting finale in Britain in conditions that I like. I must win the rally but the destiny of the title is pretty much in my own hands and that's a good feeling."

Latvala enjoyed another strong event and his pace on the asphalt stages on days two and three was very impressive: "It was a fantastic weekend and great to be on the podium after my best performance in Spain," remarked the columnist. "I'll take plenty of positives away from the rally. I have so much confidence with the Fiesta on asphalt and I want to store up my asphalt speed and take it out of the bottle when I need it.

"I'm still annoyed about my spin on Friday when I lost the chance of victory. It was my mistake, and a painful one, but the conditions weren't the same for everyone. However, the positives from this weekend far outweigh that one mistake."

Away from the podium, local star Dani Sordo was next up and took fourth for the new MINI WRT. After rostrums in Germany and France he was slightly disappointed not to do better, but that is a good indication of just how competitive the John Cooper Works WRC car is.

"It is okay to be fourth, but we lost a lot on the first day on the gravel stages and with the dust," Sordo said. "We had hoped the rain would have come a little bit earlier today. For the first two stages we had the wrong tyres and the others had the right ones, then in the final stage we had the right ones. It was fun and a little bit slippery in some places. I am quite okay, but not totally happy as I really wanted to finish on the podium on my home rally, but it didn't happen this time."

To emphasise MINI's competitiveness, Kris Meeke followed his team-mate home in fifth place, the Britain's best result thus far at the top level. Meeke also ended the event on a high by winning the Power Stage, 0.2 seconds up on Sordo.

"That was the perfect end to this rally for me," Meeke noted. "I knew we had made a good start to the stage, but then knew I had messed up on the last roundabout. I had a quiet word with my engineer, Teena (Gade), in service before the last loop and she was saying just get it home as we will be happy with a finish now. I was so frustrated and wanted to go fast, as I loved the power stage the first time through. To be quicker than Dani on the same tyres on his home patch is something pretty special. Over the whole rally I don't have the experience to compete with the other guys yet, but this shows that when I know where we are going we can be with them."

Mads Ostberg rounded out the top six for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team. The Norwegian ran in the top-seven throughout and was happy with his pace, especially on the final day.

"Overall I am very happy with my performance and I've even had some fun today on the stages," Ostberg said. "The asphalt has been very enjoyable and I have been really happy with my pace compared to France and Germany. The last two stages today have been very good and I am feeling a lot more comfortable driving on Tarmac.

"We wanted to try to push for the Power Stage so we made some changes after the first run but at the same time we didn't want to do anything stupid. Friday was a difficult day which is something that I didn't expect going into this rally but it's been an encouraging weekend and I think I have learned a lot of valuable lessons."

Evgeny Novikov, who was trying out a Citroen DS3 WRC car in Spain, came through to secure seventh, getting the better of Henning Solberg on the final loop. He eventually finished 8.3 seconds ahead.

"It's my best result of the season," Novikov said. "We've done a lot of work with the team and I felt more and more at home behind the wheel. My main aim was to see the finish and get to know the car. I've done so and on top of that I've scored points!"

Dennis Kuipers and Juho Hanninen took positions 9 and 10, the latter also taking both the SWRC class win and the SWRC title. Hanninen moved into the lead in the SWRC this morning when Nasser Al-Attiyah lost time with brake problems. His main championship rival, Ott Tanak finished sixth in the class and well out of contention after having had to retire on Friday when he damaged his car in SS1.

"It'll take me a few days really to realise what's happened," Hanninen noted. "It's fantastic, I'm so happy, maybe I will dance on the roof of my car! I made a big mistake in France so I made my life difficult here in Spain, but now it feels very, very good to win the rally and the Championship."

In the PWRC, Patrik Flodin was victorious, eventually edging out Michal Kosciuszko by two seconds.

In terms of retirements, in addition to Ogier, Matthew Wilson also stopped in the penultimate stage in his M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC. He had been running tenth until he took a wheel off.

Petter Solberg and Kimi Raikkonen also retired, but both went out on Friday. Solberg ripped off a wheel in SS1, when he got caught out by hanging dust, while engine issues stopped Raikkonen in SS3.

Ken Block retired on Friday too, but could rejoin under the SupeRally on Saturday. However he went out again today, crashing in SS13.

The 2011 WRC now gears up for the finale next month in Cardiff, with the event running from November 10-13.