CARDIFF, WALES // Sebastien Loeb clinched his sixth consecutive World Rally Championship title yesterday, after a bizarre incident on Rally Great Britain's penultimate stage ended the brave charge of BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen. With Loeb's Citroen the first car on the road for the 2009 championship's final four stages, Hirvonen took 12 seconds out of the Frenchman's commanding 30.2second overnight lead, and the dream showdown appeared very much alive. But the Finn was left ruing his luck on stage 15 when his bonnet inexplicably flipped up and blinded his view of the road. Hirvonen was forced to stop to pin down the bonnet but the "Iceman" had lost more than a minute and victory - and the title - went to Loeb.
The champion, who arrived in Wales needing to beat Hirvonen - a non-sealed surface specialist - on gravel to win the title, eased to the finish for his 54th rally win, before lapping up a hero's welcome when he returned to the Citroen marquee. "It's been an incredible season," said Loeb. "We made a good start but then we lost everything and we came here one point behind. "Finally we've done it and I'm really happy, but Mikko has been extremely strong. He's been incredible throughout the season and I know it will be tough next year for sure."
Having secured his sixth world crown in nailbiting fashion on the treacherously muddy Welsh forests tracks, Loeb confessed the battle had almost got the better of him. "This has been one of my best title wins; the battle was so intense - going almost until the end of the last rally. It was incredible," said Loeb. "We have had some highs and some lows this year but we finished with the victory. It's an incredible feeling."
Inevitably, the mood in the Ford camp was somewhat more downbeat. With Hirvonen running straight to his waiting children when he despondently left his battered car, team director Malcolm Wilson promised Citroen an even bigger fight next year. "Mikko's fightback has been remarkable," said Wilson. "There is no question that we've had Sebastien [Loeb] rattled a few times this season and I think there will be more of that in the future. Knowing Mikko like I do, I expect him to dig even deeper."