Sebastien Loeb continued his perfect start to the new World Rally Championship season by taking victory in the Rally of Norway to deal a major blow to BP Abu Dhabi Ford's title hopes. The Frenchman was forced to hold off a charging Mikko Hirvonen to claim his second win from the first two rounds of the year despite spending most of the rally as the first man on the snowy stages, effectively acting as a road sweeper for his competitors. The Citroen driver had entered the final day holding a handy 15-second lead over the Ford of Hirvonen but the Finn set about reducing Loeb's lead from the off and after four of the day's six stages the lead had narrowed to 8.2 seconds, Hirvonen taking 6.4 seconds out of his rival on the second run through the Valer stage. Hirvonen then further trimmed the gap on the penultimate stage to leave him just 7.7 seconds behind the five-time world champion. But Loeb retained his composure and emerged the quicker of the two men through the final stage in Budor to end the rally with a 9.8-second advantage and claim his 49th WRC career victory. The win also sees Loeb open up a six-point lead in the race for the drivers' championship. Loeb, 34, had been pessimistic in the build-up to the Scandinavian event due to the Ford Focus' excellent pace on snow and ice, as well as the Blue Oval's clean sweep of the podium when the championship last visited Norway in 2007, and he was delighted to land an unexpected blow in the title race. "Mikko has done a really great rally and I had to push on the limit from the first to the last stage," he said. "Finally, we've done it. It's been very difficult mentally to keep pushing to the end and know that you could lose everything at the last corner of the last stage. It's a lot more exciting when you win with a battle like this." Hirvonen revealed he had given his all to overhaul his overnight deficit but was still pleased with second place. "I'm sad that we came second, but I'm glad we finished. It was a really, really big and close fight. He was faster yesterday, and that was it. I'm glad about my speed today ? I managed to push him really hard," he said. The Finn's Ford teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala, was a solid third, over a minute behind the leading pair, with Henning Solberg scoring a fine fourth position in his Focus. The Citroen number two Dani Sordo was fifth with Petter Solberg sixth on his return to the championship following Subaru's winter withdrawal. Matthew Wilson picked up two points for seventh in his Stobart Ford with Estonia's Urmo Aava claiming the final point in eighth. The third round of the series will be in a month's time on the hot, dusty roads of Cyprus. *PA Sport
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