Solberg holds off Loeb to seize world title

At least the celebrations were worthy of the occasion. Petter Solberg clambered from the cage of his Subaru and released all the pent-up tension and anxiety.

Norway's new hero was confirmed as World Rally Champion for the first time and it seemed half his nation had turned up in South Wales to witness it. They had come to share the moment with the 28-year-old driver, who hugged everyone in reach, climbed on to a barrier and shrieked.

"I'm the best in the world," he said, the realisation freezing the smile on his face. "It's fantastic. I was told not to think about the championship on those last stages, to focus on what had to be done. But it's so difficult. I had my first win here last year and now I've won the championship. I couldn't have dreamt of this.''

Solberg's victory in Rally GB, the final round of the season, secured the title by one point from Sébastien Loeb, but that stark fact hides as much emotion as flowed on public view at stately Margam Park yesterday.

Loeb, who came into the event with a one-point advantage, had sacrificed his own cause to obey the instructions of Citroën and make it to the finish to ensure they won the manufacturers' championship. Loeb's dutiful discipline conceded the initiative to Solberg and rendered the fight for rallying's premier prize a sham. The Frenchman, even with one hand tied behind his back, was faster than everyone except the Subaru driver and left the sport wondering what might have been.

Even Solberg sympathised with the 29-year-old Loeb, who said: "It was important for the manufacturers' championship and that's okay now. But it was very difficult to drive for my title also. Hopefully I can do that next year.''

The chances are the pair will resume their duel next season. They demonstrated their superiority over the rest here by sharing first place through the 18 stages of the rally. Solberg won 13, Loeb five. Solberg had a stuttering start to the season but he had momentum on the run-in with four wins from the last five.

His graduation from wild child to world champion is due in no small part to the influence of his co-driver, Phil Mills. The Welshman's calm demeanour and astute guidance have helped Solberg harness a mercurial talent.

The significance of this success on this day was not lost on Mills, who was kept informed by the team of Wales' fluctuating fortunes on the other side of the world. "I hope this has brought some cheer to my country after our defeat in the Rugby World Cup," he said.

Solberg finished with a flourish, going fastest on the last stage to end with a winning margin of 43.6sec. Loeb, despite the restriction, was 2min 15.2sec clear of his closest challenger.

That was Tommi Makinen, four-times world champion and now heading for retirement, conscious that time and the new generation had caught up with him. The Finn, in turn, was ultimately well clear of his long-time rival, Colin McRae, whose future is still in doubt.

McRae, like Loeb, had been ordered to avoid risks. However, he still produced a dramatic cameo on that final test. He had to stop to change a punctured front right and still crossed the line in fourth place.

The Scotsman's name has inevitably being drawn into the speculation surrounding the still unexplained illness that kept Richard Burns out of this rally. The Englishman is due to move from Peugeot to Subaru as Solberg's partner next season.

Burns is to have further tests after fainting at the wheel of his road car last week and McRae maintains he hopes he will not be required by Subaru. McRae is scheduled to compete in the Dakar Rally raid this winter and is considering other motorsport offers for next year. Following his exploits yesterday, his younger brother, Alister, suggested dryly: "Maybe he can get a job at Kwik Fit next year."

RALLY GB Final Classification: 1 P Solberg (Nor) Subaru 3hr 28min 58.1sec; 2 S Loeb (Fr) Citroën +43.6sec; 3 T Makinen (Fin) Subaru +2min 58.8sec; 4 C McRae (GB) Citroën +5:28.1; 5 F Duval (Bel) Ford +7:16.1; 6 F Loix (Bel) Peugeot +8:06.5; 7 M Stohl (Aus) Peugeot +8:48.4; 8 R Kresta (Cz Rep) Peugeot +9:02.6; 9 J Pykalisto (Fin) Peugeot +9:53.6; 10 J-M Latvala (Fin) Ford +12:25.3.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP Final standings: Drivers' Championship: 1 P Solberg (Nor) Subaru 72pts; 2 S Loeb (Fr) Citroën 71; 3 C Sainz (Sp) Citroën 63; 4 R Burns (GB) Subaru 58; 5 M Martin (Est) Ford 49; 6 M Gronholm (Fin) Peugeot 46; 7 C McRae (GB) Citroën 45; 8 T Mäkinen (Fin) Subaru 30; 9 F Duval (Bel) Ford 30; 10 G Panizzi (Fr) Peugeot 27. Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Citroën 160pts; 2 Peugeot 145; 3 Subaru 109; 4 Ford 93; 5 Skoda 23; 6 Hyundai 12.

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