Sébastien Loeb's competitors faltered in Telstra Rally Australia, leaving the newly-crowned French world champion to clinch a record-equalling sixth WRC win of the year on Sunday.

Sébastien Loeb's competitors faltered in Telstra Rally Australia, leaving the newly-crowned French world champion to clinch a record-equalling sixth WRC win of the year on Sunday.


"(After early rally leader and lead Peugeot driver) Marcus (Gronholm) spun off on Saturday morning, it was quite difficult for me to concentrate, because there was no one to fight against," Loeb said. "I slowed my pace, but then I spun, so I realised that was not the way to go."


The six victories match the record set by Didier Auriol in 1992 in the then-dominant Lancia Delta Integrale HF. Auriol won six of the 10 WRC events that year, while Carlos Sainz - who is retiring at the end of this year – clinched two wins in a Toyota Celica.


Loeb tied the record with wins in Monte Carlo, Sweden, Cyprus, Turkey, Germany and Australia. Six wins out of 16 rallies is not quite as dominant, but with today's WRC schedule, Auriol's winning record may not be matched for a very long time.


"It's nice to share the record with Didier Auriol," the Citroën Xsara said. "As a driver, it is always nice to get statistics like this!"


Not only did Loeb match Auriol's record, but he was also the first French WRC drivers' champion since Auriol took the title in 1994, two years after his record-setting season. Loeb finished the season with 118 points - an impressive 36 points ahead of his nearest rival, Subaru's Petter Solberg.


In Rally Australia, it really was no contest once Loeb's key opponents faltered. Solberg and Markko Martin (Ford) retired on Friday, and Gronholm spun off on Saturday, leaving Loeb with more than a minute advantage over the next man, Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera at the beginning of the second leg.


At the finish, Loeb was 1:55 ahead of Rovanpera, who was still satisfied with a second place, his best finish in a troubled year.


"It's been a very good rally for us," Rovanpera said. "The car was very reliable, which allowed us to push with confidence and fight at the front. We've had no problems at all on this rally, apart from a couple of small mistakes which cost us a little bit of time."


"Today was quite a tough day because of the high temperatures and tricky stages," the Finn added. "We just concentrated on keeping our position. After a difficult year, it is good to end on a positive note!"


Ford's Francois Duval took the final podium position, 3:40 behind Duval and 1:45 behind Rovanpera's pace, while Mikko Hirvonen, piloting the second Subaru Impreza, matched his career best finish with a fourth place, six minutes behind the winner.


Australian privateer Chris Atkinson took fifth in a Subaru Impreza WRX - but nearly 17 minutes behind the pace of Loeb's works Xsara. Xavier Pons (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo) and Cody Crocker (Subaru Impreza WRX) were hot on Atkinson's tail, 41 and 47 seconds behind respectively.


Solberg and Gronholm both returned for the final day, under the 2004 restart system, to get some more testing mileage under their cars, even if they were now out of the rally. The Norwegian continued the blistering pace he had shown on Saturday's stages, and set four of the six fastest stage times, with Gronholm close behind on most stages.


On the penultimate stage, Bannister North Long, Gronholm went off the road near the beginning of the stage, barrel-rolling the Peugeot 307. Gronholm and co-pilot Timo Raitiainen got out of the car without any need for help, but were nevertheless dispatched to a hospital for precautionary checks.


And so Rally Australia wrapped up the 2004 World Rally season. The teams will now head back to their home bases to hatch plans to end the Loeb-Citroën domination next year.