Five-times world champion, Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, looked to have closed to within one point of Mikko Hirvonen after his victory in Rally Australia, but the Finn was awarded the victory after a penalty for a technical infringement.
AFP - Championship leader Mikko Hirvonen snatched victory away from five-times world champion Sebastien Loeb in Rally Australia on Sunday after the latter's Citroen team were slapped with a penalty for a technical infringement.
Five-times world champion Loeb looked to have closed to within one point of Hirvonen after coming in 12.5sec ahead of the Ford Abu Dhabi Team driver, but instead the Finn was awarded the victory in the northern New South Wales region after stewards found the Citroen anti-rollbars did not conform to FIA technical configurations.
The Citroen C4s of Loeb, Dani Sordo, who had come in third, and fourth-placed Sebastien Ogier, were all penalised by one minute and left Hirvonen to savour a crucial win, his fourth of the season after Greece, Poland and Finland.
He now leads the drivers' championship by five points with just two races to go.
Two seasons ago, Marcus Gronholm's Ford suffered a similar fate after a ruling against the thickness of their car's side windows - a rear side window was adjudged 0.5mm too thin.
Gronholm and Hirvonen, who had come in second and third behind Loeb, were disqualified.
"The stewards received a post-event scrutineering report from the FIA technical delegate which stated that the front anti rollbar link of car no.1 did not comply with the homologation form of the car," a statement from race officials said.
Loeb is now four months without a win and Hirvonen is poised to become the first driver to deny the Frenchman a world championship title since Petter Solberg won in 2003.
Citroen Racing boss Olivier Quesnel denied that the rollbars had presented his drivers with an advantage - but said there would be no appeal.
"These were bits of the front axle assembly which did not engender any kind of performance boost," Quesnel said.
"We should have reconfigured the bit. I am sorry for our drivers (but) we take responsibility and we shall not appeal," he added.
Prior to the penalties, round 10 of the FIA World Rally Championship had seen Loeb's Spanish teammate Dani Sordo come third, 4.6sec further back after losing out in a desperate battle with Hirvonen that went to the last of the 35 special stages.
But the penalty saw Loeb denied what would have been his 53rd rally win and his sixth maximum 10-point haul of the season.
Now he has ground to make up with only two races left in Spain on October 4 and then the finale in Britain.
The Frenchman, linked with a drive for the Red Bull-owned Formula One team Torro Rosso in this year's season finale in Abu Dhabi, had been set fair to land his sixth consecutive WRC drivers' title after winning the opening five rallies of the season.
But since his triupmh in Argentina in April, his form has dipped and Hirvonen has overtaken him on the track and in the championship standings.
Before realising he had lost out for the technical infringement, Loeb had forecast that "it will be an incredible fight to the final."
Now it will be even tougher.
Loeb won nine of the special stages ahead of Citroen Junior Team driver Sebastien Ogier with eight, Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala's seven and Hirvonen's five.
The final day's victory had looked to be a tactical triumph for Loeb, who gambled by relinquishing the lead to Hirvonen on Saturday in exchange for a better road position on Sunday's stages.
With the leading car given the difficult job of clearing the road of gravel for his following rivals, Loeb decided he would have little chance as the first car out.
Instead Hirvonen had to drive flat out in a bid to overcome his disadvantageous road position.
But he couldn't match Loeb's pace and had to settle for a thrilling battle with Sordo for second place.
Date created : 2009-09-06