2005 DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom can now add the title of "Champion of Champions" to his list of credits, as the Swede took the victory in today's Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris.
Ekstrom, who has only two top-level rallies under his belt, took the first heat in the finals with a 1.9-second edge over Loeb, as the Frenchman was unable to convert his extensive experience -- and three WRC titles -- in the Citroen Xsara WRC into a win over Ekstrom.
"That was more than cool," Ekstrom exclaimed. "I just thought it would be flat-out, but I knew it would be so tough to beat Seb in his own car. If you ask anybody, they would say it's not possible. I messed up the start and I think that got the adrenaline pumping."
Once the pair switched into road course vehicles, driving matched Renault Megane Trophies, it was no contest, as Ekstrom outpaced Loeb by 6.3 seconds to take the ROC individual title, and adding it to the 2005 Nations' Cup victory he took together with Tom Kristensen.
His next opponent, then, was Kovalainen, who carried a perfect record into the race, having gone 6-0 in the Nations' Cup competition, and then beating Tom Kristensen -- for the third time on the day -- in their first round match-up.
Kovalainen and Ekstrom were very evenly matched in their Meganes, with neither driver putting a foot wrong, but in the end, it was Ekstrom upsetting the Finn by the slimmest of margins: less than a hand's width, or two thousandths of a second, separated the two at the finish line.
In the semifinal, Ekstrom faced the other half of the powerful French team, as Sebastien Bourdais lined up with him at the start, again in the identical Megane Trophies.
It was a chance for Bourdais to make it an all-French, all-Sebastien final, as Loeb had already qualified by edging Colin McRae in the other semifinal. However, it was not to be, as Bourdais, trying to make up ground on Ekstrom misjudged the car's limits on the penultimate lap.
The three-time Champ Car champion ended up clipping the barriers and tearing off the right front fender of the Megane, allowing Ekstrom to coast to a comfortable three-second margin of victory, and into the final.
Loeb's march to the finals through the rally driver group had been somewhat easier, the reigning WRC champion showing that he had fully recovered from his mountain-biking injury.
He started the competition with relatively easy victories over Dakar specialist Nani Roma and Nations' Cup star Travis Pastrana, and followed that up with a hard-fought win over McRae, taking a one-second win over the Scot in the Xsara WRCs. In the final, though, he had to concede the victory to Ekstrom, to the disappointment of the 60,000 French fans filling the stadium.
"Mattias drove a great race," Loeb complimented his rival. "He's a good driver both on track and in rallies. He was just faster."