The orders of Citroen boss Yves Matton denied Rally New Zealand a furious finish today, as team tactics turned the racing into little more than a procession for Sebastien Loeb.
Loeb cruised to his third Rally New Zealand title and 72nd win in a glittering World Rally Championship career, edging teammate Mikko Hirvonen by 29.6 seconds after three days of racing in the Auckland and Waikato regions.
The eight-time world champion held a 4-second lead over Hirvonen after day one, increased that to 6.4 seconds following the second leg, and comfortably closed out the final day to solidify his lead atop the WRC drivers' standings.
But the victory would have been far tricker to attain had Matton not intervened late last night.
With Loeb and Hirvonen a minute and a half clear of third-placed Petter Solberg, Matton was worried by worsening conditions and the possibility of the teammates pushing each other into a costly mistake. Accordingly, he ordered the pair to cease their battle and secure Citroen's fourth one-two of the season.
Hirvonen, second in the drivers' standings, dutifully obliged and took his foot off the pedal to allow Loeb to emerge triumphant.
It was a disappointing end to what had been a fascinating duel between the pair, as both drivers dominated the roads and took turns at pegging back the other for two days, but neither had a complaint at the conclusion of the rally.
"It was not too bad,'' Hirvonen said. "Imagine how many times I've been in that situation - just holding my position and making sure I get to the finish.''
Indeed, the exact same scenario played out at the rally in Argentina earlier in the year, and Hirvonen had a chance to alter the script on the first two days.
"I just couldn't do it,'' the Finn said. "We had a really great fight for the first two days. It was really annoying because in some splits you could take a second out of [Loeb] and then he responded right away.
"There was nothing much I could do so I just tried to make sure I got to the finish and played it a little bit safe.''
Playing it safe was what ultimately brought the order from Matton, and he said he very nearly imposed the restriction on the second day.
"It was not an easy situation for me on [Saturday] afternoon, but I think I have two drivers who know the situation very well and they can push very hard without any mistakes. It's a lot of stress, but with drivers like Seb and Mikko it's a lot easier.''
For Loeb, the win was enhanced by the contest with Hirvonen, not weakened by the absence of any real competition on the final stages.
"I'm really happy to be here with another victory and it's been a great battle all of the weekend with Mikko,'' he said. "It was a really good fight for two long days.''
With the future of New Zealand as a destination on the WRC calendar in question, Loeb took time to express their admiration for the event.
"The roads are made for rally,'' Loeb said. "For me, it's really a perfect rally. The stages are wonderful so it's really a pleasure to drive here.''
Hirvonen concurred with his teammate and said the setting provided some consolation for his second place.
"I don't know if we are coming back to New Zealand so it was one of the rallies I really wanted to win. But with these roads you love every minute of it so it was a good weekend in the end.''