26 February 1999
Ford Focus shines on gruelling opening to Safari
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led the Ford Martini World Rally Team challenge after the opening leg of Kenya's Safari Rally, their Ford Focus World Rally Car in third after a gruelling day's competition in the heat and dust of the vast African plains. Team-mates Petter Solberg and Fred Gallagher were seventh in the second Focus.
Roads made incredibly rough by potholes, rocks and ruts make the Safari the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship and today provided the toughest challenge yet for the new Ford Focus. But it was a test that both Focus cars passed with flying colours, to the delight of Ford Martini World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson.
"It's absolutely fantastic for both Ford Focus cars to be going so well on not only their Safari debut, but also the first true loose surface event for the car," he said. "We knew from testing here in Kenya that the car would be good. Colin has run at a fast and consistent pace throughout the day while Petter has done exactly what was asked of him, taking it steadily and gaining valuable experience of the rally."
Four long competitive sections, two of which were more than 110km, took their toll on virtually all the leading competitors. McRae collected three punctures during the day, one of which he and Grist had to stop and change, but perhaps the most serious incident came on the third section when the car drifted wide on a fast bend and hit a rock so large that it damaged the car's sub-frame.
"I can't believe that we survived because the impact was so large," said McRae. "The Focus is so strong and I think it must be built like a tank to survive that! It's been a little frustrating today because having to stop to change a tyre and a few brake troubles on the final stage meant we didn't have a clean run through the sections. But you have to expect these things on this rally and we should be very happy with our position. It's been a typical Safari, very hot and very rough, but we're in good shape for tomorrow.
Solberg, driving a Focus for the first time and making his debut on the Safari, has impressed experienced onlookers with his mature display. Apart from overheating brakes on the final section, his only problem came when he was trapped in the dust of Harri Rovanpera's car, Solberg catching the Finn just as he regained the road after stopping to change two punctures.
"We had to drive for more than 20km in his dust and it was so bad at one point that we went off the road and into a ditch because we just couldn't see where we were going," said Solberg. "Today has been far better than I expected and Fred's experience of this rally has been invaluable. His knowledge of the roads has allowed me to drive more carefully on the rougher sections and protect the car where necessary." /more
News from our Rivals
The lead has been split between 1998 rally winner Richard Burns (Subaru) and Carlos Sainz (Toyota) throughout the day. Burns led after the day's first competitive section, Sainz moved ahead for the next two before the Briton regained top spot on the last test. Neither has suffered any problems. A puncture on the third section was the only problem for Didier Auriol (Toyota). Others did not fare so well. Subaru drivers Bruno Thiry and Juha Kankkunen retired on the second and third sections respectively, both with electrical problems, while Freddy Loix was airlifted to hospital after rolling his Mitsubishi in fifth gear at 160kph on the third section. Fortunately his injuries were not serious but he will remain in hospital tonight for observation. Punctures have been the biggest problem for many drivers. World Championship leader Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi) dropped around 12 minutes on the day's opening section after flailing rubber from two rear punctures became tangled in the suspension, a similar problem costing Kenya's Ian Duncan (Toyota) around the same time. Seat drivers Harri Rovanpera and Piero Liatti suffered worst of all, collecting three punctures each.
If drivers thought today's leg was tough, then tomorrow's threatens to be even harder. Fifteen hours on the road and 382km of competitive driving in a total route of 1255km adds up to another hot, dusty and gruelling day. The rally leaves Nairobi at 05.00, returning to Kenya's capital city at 20.00 after four competitive sections, none of which are less than 80km. The route takes drivers north of Nairobi, across the great Rift Valley and up the Mau Escarpment, with the day's second section held entirely in the northern hemisphere and the final test crossing the equator.
Nicky Grist: "All tomorrow's competitive sections will be critical but especially the final two. There are lots of stones and holes in the road and you must pick your way around them. Each one has the potential to damage the car or put you straight out of the rally."
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 50min 06.2sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 2hr 50min 32.9sec 3. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 2hr 52min 02.4sec 4. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 2hr 56min 24.8sec 5. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 03min 17.8sec 6. P Liatti/F Pons I Seat WRC 3hr 05min 34.4sec 7. P Solberg/F Gallagher N Ford Focus 3hr 09min 54.3sec 8. I Duncan/D Williamson EAK Toyota Corolla 3hr 11min 49.7sec 9. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 3hr 16min 42.4sec 10 H Al Wahaibi/T Sircombe OM Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 17min 26.4sec