BRISBANE // Five-time world champion Sebastien Loeb was stripped of his victory and relegated to second place in the Rally of Australia today because of a technical infringement with his Citroen car. A spokeswoman for the governing FIA said stewards had ruled that the front anti-roll bar links on the three Citroen cars, driven by Frenchman Loeb, Spain's Dani Sordo and France's Sebastien Ogier, did not conform to the regulations.
As a result, all three drivers were handed one minute penalties. That meant Loeb, who had won the rally by 12.5 seconds, was relegated from first to second behind Bp Abu Dhabi Ford's championship leader Mikko Hirvonen. Sordo remained in third place despite the penalty while Ogier dropped from fourth to fifth. The spokeswoman said Citroen had the right to lodge an appeal. The penalty could have a major bearing on deciding this year's championship, which has already been reduced to a straight shoot-out between Loeb and Hirvonen. Loeb, who won the first five rallies of the season but has not won since, would have closed the gap to just one point had the victory stood. However, his relegation to second coupled with the Finn's promotion to first leaves Hirvonen with a five-point lead heading into the last two rallies of the season, in Spain and Britain. The stewards' decision capped three days of drama and controversy in the first Australian rally held on the gravel roads of northern New South Wales. Friday's first full day was marred by rock-throwing protesters, who claimed the race was damaging the environment and forced the cancellation of two stages, while the final day produced a classic three-way battle between Loeb, Hirvonen and Sordo. Loeb won four of the 10 concluding stages to claim what would have been his 53rd career victory and could not contain his initial excitement. "This one is a good one," he told reporters immediately after his win, before the penalty was handed down. "The championship is really interesting. It will be an incredible fight to the final I think." Hirvonen, who had won the previous three rounds to overtake Loeb at the top of the standings, was initially downbeat and credited Loeb's win to a clever tactical ploy by Citroen late on Saturday afternoon. Loeb was leading the rally at that point but slowed down to let Hirvonen get ahead of him on the time sheets so the Finn would have to start first on Sunday, driving in the worst of the conditions and clearing the road for everyone behind him. "I couldn't help it, Citroen did really well yesterday and we didn't have a chance today," Hirvonen said. "Maybe it would have been a different story if I hadn't been first on the road, but there are so many ifs... we need to forget this one now and move on." Friday's overnight leader Jari-Matti Latvala, whose chances of winning were blown by two tyre punctures, was promoted from fourth to fifth because of the penalty to Ogier, with Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg finishing sixth and seventh respectively. * Reuters