Peugeot-Michelin's Gilles Panizzi clinched his first win of the 2003 season in the last stage of this weekend's Catalonia Rally today.

In pouring rain, and despite leading from the morning of day 1, Sebastien Loeb was unable to halt Panizzi's dramatic comeback and was forced to settle for second spot by the margin of 13 seconds.

Markko Martin joined the two Frenchmen on the podium, while Carlos Sainz was passed on the final day by Fran?ois Duval, Petter Solberg and Marcus Gronholm.

Loeb and Sainz go to the final round of the 2003 championship as joint leaders in the Drivers' classification, one point clear of Petter Solberg. In the Manufacturers' stakes, Citroen's advantage over Peugeot has been cut to a mere 5 points.

Despite ending leg 1 in fourth position, more than 33s behind early leader Loeb, Panizzi never gave up hope for a moment. Saturday's action saw the Peugeot-Michelin driver maintain the pressure over the perfectly dry stages around Vic, posting seven top-four times from eight - including two fastests - to conclude the day in third position, albeit still 36s behind Loeb.

But Sunday morning saw threatening storm clouds gather over the Costa Brava mountains and the third and final leg was run in torrential rain. By the end of the first attempt at the day's three stages, Panizzi had moved into second position. Two stages later, with one test remaining (the longest of the rally, 35.18km), the 206 WRC driver had closed to within 31 seconds of Loeb's Xsara... And in a breathtaking finale, pushing home his advantage of running on softer tyres than his rival, Panizzi was an amazing 44 seconds quicker. Victory on his final asphalt outing in Peugeot colours was his!

Yet it was Loeb who had taken command of the rally on the opening day thanks to a judicious early tyre choice and he looked very much on target for his fourth win of the season. By the end of day 1, the Citroen-Michelin driver had pulled out a cushion of 26 seconds over his own team-mate Sainz, while leg 2 saw him control from in front. But with his lead whittled down to a little over 20 seconds, victory was by no means guaranteed, especially if the predictions of poor weather proved exact, since running 15th on the road could well prove something of a handicap because of the prospect of mud being dragged onto the stages by the first cars through.

The weathermen were right, but Loeb's advantage looked secure after the first three stages. However, when the Frenchman opted to keep the same relatively hard compound tyres he had used first time through for the second pass - when switching to a softer option would probably have been better - there was nothing he could do to resist the charging Panizzi.

Even so, eight addition points keep Loeb's Drivers' title chances very much alive, especially since his fellow championship leader, Sainz, suffered the misfortune of falling from fourth to seventh place on the very same test.
The 2003 title will therefore be fought out in Great Britain between four drivers: Loeb, Sainz, Solberg and Richard Burns.

The Briton retired following an accident in Catalonia while in sixth position and now trails Loeb and Sainz by 5 points, but he still has a mathematical chance of clinching a second world title in three years. On the other hand, there is no hope left for either Markko Martin, third in Spain, or defending champion, Marcus Gronholm - sixth.

The points secured by Panizzi and Gronholm in Spain have enabled Peugeot to close to within just 5 points of Citroen in the Manufacturers' classification, which means their battle too will go down to the wire in two weeks' time in Wales.