NAIROBI (KENYA) Friday, June 25th, 2021 — The Belgian crew of Thierry Neuville and Martin Wydaeghe won three of the six punishing gravel and sandy stages to hold a lead of 18.8 seconds after the opening leg of the Safari Rally Kenya on Friday.
Two scintillating runs through the longest stage of the rally enabled the Belgian to push his Hyundai i20 hard where conditions permitted and he managed to carve out the advantage over young Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta, despite finishing the last stage with 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.
Sébastien 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 have 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.
Friday – as it happened
Ogier was the first driver into the narrow 13.34km of the Chui Lodge stage and the Frenchman survived the choking fesh-fesh and his first real African challenge to card a time of 9min 54.9sec.
Evans ran nine-tenths of a second quicker than his team-mate on the slippery and rutted surface but the fastest time and the outright lead fell to Neuville with a run of 9min 47.7sec. Katsuta stalled and dropped 20.4 seconds to the stage winner, as Rovanperä settled into second place and Tänak held third.
Prokop was late leaving service after a fuel feed and engine starting issue that he put down to the altitude. The Czech survived the opener to stay in the WRC2 hunt.
The fast and flowing Kedong stage, at 32.68km, is the longest of the rally and was next on the cards for the already battle-scarred cars. Ogier survived an early scare when he clipped a low ridge and an overshoot to card a ragged target time of 17min 26.5sec although he was forced to check the car’s damaged rear suspension after the stage.
Neuville overshot the same junction as Ogier but Evans was the first of the top seeds to face major Safari drama. The Welshman hit a rock and the right-hand suspension gave way within sight of the finish.
As Evans worked in vain on the broken Yaris, Neuville beat Ogier by 34.2 seconds. Rovanperä finished in second to trail Neuville by 8.2 in the overall standings with Tänak in third. An irate Sordo ran sideways at speed, spun the i20 and ran backwards into a ditch and subsequent retirement, as Greensmith broke a rear anti-roll bar and survived the “horrific” conditions.
The stage was later red-flagged after Kenya’s Tejveer Rai rolled his Volkswagen Polo GTi at high speed and the wrecked car came to rest blocking the track.
Ogier completed the loop and the 18.87km of the fourth Oserian stage with no oil in the rear left damper and was relieved to survive with a cautious stage time of 14min 17.9sec. The Frenchman’s problems pushed him down to seventh overall at the day’s midpoint.
Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo had stated after the previous stage that the pace of his top drivers was probably unsustainable but it failed to prevent the leaders pushing quite hard.
Rovanperä set the fastest time of 12min 39.3sec to reduce Neuville’s lead to 5.1 seconds on the return to the Navaisha service park. Katsuta was third quickest, a mere 5.2 seconds behind his flying Finnish team-mate, to hold fourth and the M-Sport Fords of Greensmith and Fourmaux were fifth and sixth.
Bertelli was the third of the World Rally Car drivers to retire for the day with technical issues, as Onkar Rai and Prokop led the WRC3 and WRC2 categories in eighth and ninth overall.
Oliver Solberg began two of the morning’s stages later than anticipated after damaging his i20 on the opening but, even though he recorded stages times to hold 15th overall, the young Swede retired after the stage with roll cage, chassis and substantial rear-right suspension damage.
Solberg said: “We checked everything after the first stage. It was just a small bent arm, but on the road section the sub-frame broke. I tried to get to service. I am very sorry for the team.”
With his Yaris repaired, Ogier tried to reduce the 2min 11.9sec by which he trailed leader Neuville on the re-run of Chui Lodge. But the Frenchman was over 13 seconds slower than his first pass on the deteriorating surface and dropped another 2.1 to the rally leader.
Tänak stalled at more than one hairpin and still beat Neuville by 1.2 seconds to reduce the deficit to 25, but Rovanperä was again quickest and snatched a 1.2-second lead over Neuville, despite serious dust issues in his Yaris. Fourmaux beat team-mate Greensmith by five seconds in the battle for fifth place and WRC2’s Prokop overhauled WRC3 pace-setter Rai to snatch eighth overall.
A second pass through Kedong would be decisive in determining the overnight situation. Ogier trimmed 19 seconds off his morning’s run but was still beaten by 15.2 seconds by a flying Neuville, who finished the stage with a rear-right tyre off a broken rim.
The Belgian managed to pull 15.7 seconds further clear of Tänak and regained a 10-second rally lead after beating a cautious Rovanperä by 11.2 seconds.
Greensmith punctured three kilometres from the stage finish and that enabled Ogier to move to within 2.2 seconds of the Briton’s hold on fifth place after the seven-time World Champion had overhauled Fourmaux to gain sixth. Prokop crashed near the finish of the stage and lost out on eighth place.
Ogier survived the fesh-fesh and a blocked radiator in Oserian to hold fourth. Neuville managed to finish the special with a delaminated rear tyre and a second puncture that cost the Belgian nearly 40 seconds to Ogier. Tänak also suffered his own tyre issues and dropped 54.9 seconds.
But there was drama as well for Rovanperä a mere 900 metres after the stage: the Finn became bogged down in choking fesh-fesh and got stuck on a stage where he could so easily have regained the rally lead. An equal fastest time enabled Katsuta to climb to second place, as the stage was stopped while Kalle’s stricken car was towed off the racing line.
Once the car had been removed and Rovanperä decided against carrying on, Greensmith confirmed fifth place with the fourth fastest time and Fourmaux was third quickest and rounded off the top six at the end of a dramatic day.
A further two loops of three gruelling stages will focus the competitors’ attention to the limit on Saturday.
Action begins with the first pass through the Elementieta (SS8/11) stage that is reportedly home to around 600 Rothschild giraffes – 10% of the world’s population. The opening section of the 14.67km special heads down towards Lake Elementieta and features fast trails and an arduous section over volcanic lava.
A short road link takes crews to the live televised Soysambu (SS9/12) special, which incorporates a couple of river crossings, spectator areas and steep ascents and descents in its treacherous 20.33km.
The third of the day’s stages is the feared Sleeping Warrior (SS10/13) that runs for 31.04km. It is fast and rough and incorporates a number of big holes on straight sections. Its name is derived from the hill around the special that looks like a Masai warrior lying down. The story is that when the warrior awakens, the end of the world is nigh….
2021 Safari Rally Kenya – positions after SS7:
1. Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Martin Wydaeghe (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 1hr 23min 19.1sec
2. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 1hr 23min 37.9sec
3. Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 1hr 24min 14.9sec
4. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Toyota Yaris WRC 1hr 25min 08.5sec
5. Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC 1hr 25min 15.2sec
6. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)/Renaud Jamoul (BEL) Ford Fiesta WRC 1hr 25min 38.2sec