Thierry Neuville co-driven by Martin Wydaeghe in a Hyundai i20 Coupe won three of the six challenging gravel and sandy stages to hold a lead of 18.8 seconds after the first leg of the Safari Rally Kenya on Friday.
Neuville survived two ripped up tyres as he finished Section 7 with huge relief. On a day that saw World champions Sebastien Ogier co-driven by Julien Ingrassia struggle, ceding ground to young Toyota teammate Takamoto Katsuta, the Safari Rally Kenya proved a hard nut to crack for the speedsters.
Neuville cruised through the Kedong, the longest stage of the rally, as he opened a gap between him and the chasing Japanese youngster Katsuta despite the two flat tyres.
Neuville’s Estonian team-mate Ott Tänak also finished the last stage of the day with no rubber on a front rim and held third place after Toyota rival Kalle Rovanperä got stuck in fesh-fesh 900 metres after the start of the last special and was towed off the racing line and out of a potential overnight lead.
The Finn could have continued without time penalties, as per a Safari ruling on outside assistance to clear a car off the stage, but the Finn opted not to continue and would instead incur a lesser penalty of 10 minutes for failing to complete the stage.
Frenchman Ogier wasn’t his usual clean and tidy self on the morning’s loop and an overshoot, a minor coming together with a trackside ridge and a rear damper issue proved costly for the Frenchman. The championship leader slipped to seventh overall before climbing back to fourth at the expense of both of the M-Sport Ford Fiestas.
Briton Gus Greensmith finished the leg in fifth in his Ford and Adrien Fourmaux was sixth after setting the third quickest time on the last stage of the day.
Both Toyota Gazoo Racing and the Hyundai Shell Mobis team lost one of their cars on the first loop. Elfyn Evans’s WRC title challenge suffered a major setback when he clouted a rock within 300 metres of the finish of the first Kedong stage and damaged the front-right hand suspension of the Yaris.
It was a bitter blow for the Welshman who, like Hyundai rival Dani Sordo, was forced into Rally2 by one unfortunate mistake. Sordo also clouted a rock, spun his i20 and was sidelined for the day in an incident that easily has been far more costly in terms of damage.
“In the straight line we take a small stone in the middle of the road and it broke the arm of the suspension,” said Sordo. “We started to slide and the steering locked. I could do nothing.”
Evans said: “Just coming to the end of a fast section, there was a stone that was sticking out more into the road than I anticipated. Unfortunately, we clipped it with the front right wheel and it was enough to break the suspension quite badly.”
With both Lorenzo Bertelli and Oliver Solberg also sidelined on the morning’s loop, Czech driver Martin Prokop (Ford Fiesta) found himself on track for maximum WRC2 points in eighth until he retired after an accident on the penultimate stage.