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.

"If you look, we really lost on Friday,'' he insisted, before conceding that he had been happy with the Focus WRC's pace in the tricky conditions of the final leg, "I was just trying to keep the car on the road, so I am pleased with the times [when] it was damp and muddy, but I didn't think I could catch Sebastien. We are faster on gravel and are now looking forward to Portugal."

Solberg, meanwhile, was also relying on problems or errors for those ahead of him, starting the day in fourth place with the main aim of overhauling Sordo's Citroen for a place on the podium. With the Spaniard having been told not to push too hard by his employer, in an effort to ensure that he finished and took as many manufacturer points as possible with Solberg unable to score them, the Norwegian found his path eased as he overcame the 16-second deficit in two stages. Most of that came on the 40km second test, where the privateer finished second to Hirvonen and gained 41secs on his quarry.

Fifth on the final test was his worst result of the day as he returned to the podium for the first time since leaving Subaru, but the leg was not without incident as the former champion stalled due to a gearbox problem on the first stage, losing twelve seconds and a potential win, and emerged from SS13 with damage to the left rear panels.

''I wanted the podium so badly, but I was not happy in [SS12],'' Solberg admitted, having had to switch to manual shift when the proved to be insufficient time to make repairs at service, ''There was water in my footwell and we stalled and I selected the wrong gear. I lost about seven seconds at the junction.

''I hoped to be able to fix it because the podium is my dream, and [moving up to third] was incredible. I'm so happy. It took the team 38 hours of solid work to get the car ready because the boat was late arriving in Cyprus. I know it's old, but Citroen should be proud of this car."

Sordo's descent to fourth didn't mean much in the overall scheme of things for Citroen, the Spaniard admitting that 'Petter was faster because of the road conditions', but not realising quite how quick the Norwegian had been having suffered his glitch on SS11. In the end, Sordo finished nearly 37secs down on his adversary, but in little danger of falling further unless he erred.

The battle for fifth raged until the final stage, with Wilson and Sebastien Ogier swapping places on SS13 and heading into the final test separated by just five seconds. The pressure eventually told on the Frenchman, whose Citroen failed to emerge at the other end, allowing Wilson - who posted the fastest time of the section and could have come out on top anyway - to reclaim the position.

"I hoped that we have done enough,'' he admitted, ''It was a tough start on Friday, and I lost some time cleaning the windscreen [on SS12]. There was no water in the washer bottle, it was muddy and I couldn't see. I also stalled in the middle of the penultimate stage and felt I had dropped speed, but what a weekend! I am overjoyed with my result.''

Ogier had already fought back from a roll on Saturday, but crashed again less than a kilometre from the end of the final test to end his rally in ignominy. The Frenchman's exit allowed fellow Citroen Junior runner Conrad Rautenbach to move into the top six, with Federico Villagra and Khalid Al Qassimi rounding out the individual point-scorers.

Rautenbach came out of the final stage with most of the rear bodywork missing, having already stalled and lost time on SS12, reporting that the clutch and handbrake felt different after overnight work. Passing another final day victim, however, finally convinced him to ensure that he did not press too hard in the final stages.

"I had a handbrake problem and nearly went off in places but, after I saw Novikov off [on SS12], I cruised to the finish because the points are important," he confirmed.

Behind Al Qassimi, leading PWRC runner Patrik Sandell claimed ninth, having assumed control of the class when main rival Armindo Araujo ran into technical troubles on the penultimate stage. The pair had headed into the last day tenth and eleventh overall, separated by 16secs, and recorded near identical times on SS12, but Araujo then succumbed to gearbox gremlins on the lengthy Anadiou section, conceding 21secs and the class lead in the process. With just eight-tenths splitting the Skoda and Mitsubishi on SS14, with Sandell again holding the upper hand, the battle was over.

"Two wins in a row - perfect!'' Sandell admitted, ''Having learnt the car and the conditions, I was confident to push more and more. We made some small changes to get more traction today, although we had no car problems at all.''

Araujo held on for second in class, with Nasser Al-Attiyah completing the podium some 40secs adrift of Sandell.

"We lost power about four kilometres from the finish of the [twelfth] stage and the temperatures rose,'' the veteran reported, ''I did not have enough power to push at the end, and then, on the next stage, I lost time with a mud-blocked radiator again. However, [new co-driver] Giovanni [Bernaccini] and I worked well together - we are a good team."

The recovering Latvala was next up, twelfth overall, with the similarly battling Henning Solberg up to 18th by the finish, an sandwiching various PWRC and JWRC runners. The meagre 'junior' class went the way of Martin Prokop, as had been the case on days one and two, with the Citroen C2 driver seeing off Suzuki-mounted rivals Michal Kosciuszko and Aaron Burkhart by one and 19mins respectively.

With three rounds in the books, all having gone the way of Loeb, the WRC takes a break until its return to Portugal in early April. The time, one suspects, will largely be spent working on ways to stop the dominant Frenchman....



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