Mikko Hirvonen throws his Ford around a corner during the Rally Australia.
Mikko Hirvonen throws his Ford around a corner during the Rally Australia.

Loeb and Hirvoven battle was fascinating



The season may have ended with Sebastien Loeb claiming a remarkable sixth consecutive world title, but the biggest story in a thrilling World Rally Championship (WRC) campaign was just how close Finland's Mikko Hirvonen came to ending the Frenchman's reign.

With the trimmed down 12-race event getting under way in Ireland, Loeb burst out the starting blocks and romped to five straight victories. Loeb's mastery looked like turning the title race into a procession but his chief rival was hardly faltering either. Hirvonen, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, finished on the podium for the first four events, but Loeb's dominance continued when the Finn retired pointless from May's Rally Argentina.

But suddenly the wheels started coming of Loeb's Citroen. After struggling to fourth in round six in Sardinia, Loeb took only two points from the next pair of races. Acutely aware of his foe's uncharacteristic slump, Hirvonen found form. Second in Italy, he marched to three straight wins, including a majestic home soil stroll in Finland, to go three points clear in the standings with four rounds remaining.

The series moved to Australia for round 10, where a backdrop of protesters greeted the WRC's arrival in New South Wales' finely-balanced environmental areas with a mixture of verbal and physical demonstrations. Hirvonen's car was pelted with stones and two stages were cancelled to avoid further trouble. As organisers reassured the gathered rally community with talk of "vocal minorities" not speaking for "favourable majorities", the feeling among drivers in the Kingscliff service park bordered on apathetic. "Some people don't like us in front of their houses but I didn't ask to come here," reflected Loeb. "I can understand why some people don't like the rally but I have to do my job."

Which is exactly what Loeb did. The champion-turned-challenger rounded off a sumptuous display of lightening quick driving to take the win and move back to within one point of Hirvonen. Or so he thought. In the parc ferme - a secure area where the cars are stored - the race stewards discovered that the link on the Citroen man's anti-roll bar "did not match the submitted homologation photographs".

The administrative error cost Loeb dear. He was docked a minute and demoted to second place. Hirvonen was declared the winner and his fourth victory of the season extended his lead over Loeb in the drivers' championship to five points with only the Spanish and British rounds remaining. As Loeb stood sulking on the edge of the room, Hirvonen partied the night away. But the pair's yo-yo title race was far from over.

Loeb's victory in Spain, a traditional stronghold for him, negated Hirvonen's gallant third-place finish. Now only a single point separated the two warriors ahead of the final showdown in Great Britain. Hirvonen fought admirably in the Welsh mud. First on the road all weekend, he bravely kept Loeb in sight until the penultimate stage on the season's final day, when - with Loeb just 18 seconds ahead - his bonnet flipped up and blinded his view. The Finn had to stop and his challenge was over. Loeb eased up and strolled to title No 6. The pair will begin a new battle on Swedish ice in February.

They will be joined in Scandinavia by Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen, who has opted for a seat in the Citroen Junior Team for 2010. Raikkonen, marginalised at Ferrari following Fernando Alonso's arrival at the Italian outfit, sampled the WRC at his home round in Finland last summer. The Iceman competed well, but he misjudged a crest and rolled his Fiat into the trees. Whatever his form in the Loeb support team, Raikkonen will bring much-needed glamour to rally next year and plenty of intrigue awaits his first full off-road season.

Elsewhere, the UAE's Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi secured a personal slice of history by becoming the first Emirati driver to win WRC drivers' points. Al Qassimi finished the season with four top eight finishes, snaring six drivers' points. A worthy return for an improving talent. Next season is the 37-year old's last contracted year with Ford. He needs to keep impressing. Nasser al Attiyah, meanwhile, also wrapped up a sixth crown, albeit in the Middle East Rally Championship. The Qatari's fifth consecutive victory in the regional series' season-ending round in Dubai earlier this month ensured he is the Arab version of Loeb.

The UAE is set to see more world-class rally action following the news that the inaugural Rally Abu Dhabi will roll in to the capital next December. With some of the world's biggest names, including Hirvonen, Loeb and local hero al Qassimi in the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's sights, the idea is that the event will boost the emirate's long-term objective of bringing the world championship to home shores in 2011. Let the games begin, again. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae

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