Citroen team leader Sebastien Loeb has emerged triumphant on Rally Norway following a ding-dong battle with Mikko Hirvonen.

Going into the final day, 15 seconds separated the two and while Mikko kept up the pressure, winning four tests to cut the gap to 7.7 seconds going into the final stage, Seb held on.

Indeed the Frenchman eventually came out top by 9.8 seconds, topping the times in the final test to take his ninth stage win in total and make sure he ended the event in P1.

Loeb took the lead briefly in SS3 on Friday, but then trailed Hirvonen and seemed to be on the back-foot. Mikko opted to slow though in the final test on day one in order to give himself a better road position for the second leg.

As such Seb started day two on top - 2.6 seconds in front, and despite running first on the road, it was a position he would never relinquish, winning five of Saturday's eight tests, and building up a solid 15-second advantage.

That was enough to see him through the final leg, which incidentally was the longest of the event, and he came through to win only his second event on snow - the last in Sweden in 2004 - and his first in Norway.

The result also allowed him to further his bid to claim a sixth world title and he now enjoys a 6-point lead in the drivers' standings, having taken the maximum 20 points from rounds one and two.

"This victory is very important to me," said the Frenchman. "It was very difficult. I was first on the road throughout and pushing to the maximum. When you are pushing so much it is easy to make a mistake and lose the whole rally. It is good to beat the Finnish drivers and win on snow."

Hirvonen meanwhile put in a great performance, but his tactical gamble at the end of the opening day didn't work out. Indeed he only managed to beat Seb in one test on Saturday.

The Finn though was always in contention, winning eight tests, and he ensured Loeb had to work for what was his 49th WRC career win in total.

"This was the best winter rally I've competed on - and I have driven many," he reflected. "It was fantastic to be involved in such a great battle. To be split by less than 10sec after more than 360km of competition says it all.

"I'm disappointed to be second though. It wasn't the result I wanted but I'm glad that we went down fighting and it was a hugely enjoyable battle."

Hirvonen's team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala was next up and third in the sister BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT entry.

Latvala ran in third position pretty much throughout, but he struggled to match the top two and didn't really get in the groove until the second loop on Saturday and by then it was too late.

"I'm happy to score a podium but at the same time disappointed not to be able to fight for victory," said Latvala. "They are good points for myself and the team but my chances really ended on Saturday morning.

"I should have softened the suspension settings earlier so I can look in the mirror and see the reason why I didn't challenge the top two drivers."

Further down the order, Henning Solberg was fourth, one spot shy of the position he had targeted pre-event.

Henning had a few problems on day one but hauled himself in his Stobart Ford Focus from seventh to fourth on Saturday, winning SS14 in the process. He eventually finished comfortably ahead of Dani Sordo in fifth, the Spaniard 18.5 seconds adrift.

"I'm very happy," said Henning. "I have the top three drivers in the world in the top three rally cars ahead of me. It was the perfect rally in terms of the stages and its organisation which made it very enjoyable and it means a lot to me to be the first Norwegian home in the rally.

"It was good fun to race against Petter this weekend but now I can say I am the fastest Solberg and I want to try and keep it like that."

For the record, Petter Solberg was sixth on his debut in his privately entered Citroen Xsara WRC. 'Hollywood' had finished day one in fifth, but slipped back on Saturday with throttle and gearbox problems. He still had a good outing though, and managed six top-five times, including winning the short super special in Oslo on Thursday night.

Britain's Matthew Wilson trailed Petter home, finishing around 10 seconds off P6 and a similar amount up on fellow Stobart man, Urmo Aava, in eighth.

"I'm happy with my driving but I'm kicking myself because there were a few places where I was just too cautious and probably dropped too much time," said Matt. "It was great to be fighting with a driver of Petter's calibre and experience though, and we can take a lot away from that.

"Picking up points for the second rally in a row was important and we want to keep doing that as the season progresses."

Of the rest, Mads ?stberg and Sebastien Ogier rounded out the top ten, the latter the lead runner for the Citroen Junior Team, with Evgeny Novikov eleventh.

In the Production Car World Rally Championship category, Patrik Sandell took a convincing victory, leading from start-to-finish in his Red Bull Rallye Team-run Skoda Fabia S2000.

Eyvind Brynildsen was second in the P-WRC in his Lancer Evo, 44.1 seconds adrift, while Martin Prokop took third, albeit more than 2 minutes further back. Armindo Araujo and Andis Neiksans were fourth and fifth.

As for retirements, the biggest casualties included Per-Gunnar Andersson, Irish tarmac champion, Eamonn Boland and Conrad Rautenbach.

P-G had put in a fantastic run in his Skoda Fabia WRC, but unfortunately he was forced out by clutch problems before SS13 on Saturday. He had been running sixth, just 7.6 seconds behind Henning Solberg. Boland also went out, engine problems claiming him, with just two stages to go, while Rautenbach retired after the final test.

Other notable retirees included Toshi Arai and Bernardo Sousa, both out on day 1 with engine woes, and PWRC 'wild card' Andreas Mikkelsen, who was forced to call it a day before SS20 due to a double puncture.

The World Rally Championship now resumes next month, when competitors head to Limassol for the Cyprus Rally. The third round in the series runs from March 12-15 and is a mixed surface event, with the opening day on asphalt and the final two days on gravel.



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