Ford Rallye Sport held three of the top six positions at the end of today's opening leg of the Safari Rally on a day when the Kenyan classic lived up to its reputation as the most gruelling rally in the world. The toughest conditions found on any...
Ford Rallye Sport held three of the top six positions at the end of today's opening leg of the Safari Rally on a day when the Kenyan classic lived up to its reputation as the most gruelling rally in the world. The toughest conditions found on any round of the FIA World Rally Championship proved too great an obstacle for many but Ford's drivers found little to trouble their Focus RS World Rally Cars in the African plains.
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist hold second, and on a rally when time differences are normally measured in minutes, the gap of just 16.1 seconds between them and leader Tommi Makinen is the equivalent of the blink of an eyelid. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya hold third in a second Focus RS, 2min 54.8sec behind Makinen with Safari debutants Markko Martin and Michael Park an impressive sixth, 6min 34.2sec behind.
Today's leg, based in the spectacular Rift Valley to the west of Nairobi, comprised four long and arduous competitive sections, two of which climbed steeply up the Mau Escarpment before descending again to the vast open plans on the valley floor. The total distance of 336.48km was almost as long as a traditional three-day world rally. Heavy rain earlier in the year left the tracks very rough and the boulders and washaways combined with the long, unyielding faster stretches proved too much for many cars as a third of the 48 starters retired.
McRae and Grist had no such worries. Unwilling to take risks so early in the 2433km three-day rally, the Britons found a pace with which they were comfortable, happy to push on the smoother sections and to ease off on the rougher parts so as not to stretch their Focus RS beyond its mechanical limits.
They moved into second on the second section after posting fastest time and reduced Makinen's lead from more than 2min 40sec to just 16.1sec with another quickest time on the final test. Only minor troubles with their car's right rear shock absorber on the penultimate test caused any concerns, and even then they were fourth fastest.
"Today has gone very much to plan," said 33-year-old McRae. "The gap between ourselves and Tommi is small and he's definitely beatable. We've chosen our own pace and not been too concerned by the speed of others. Tommi set a faster pace but we didn't respond to that and were quite happy with a speed which suited us and didn't put any undue stress on the car. We've not taken any risks. The first day of the Safari Rally is not the time to do that and those that have gambled by exceeding the limits of their cars have paid a big price."
Sainz and Moya also enjoyed a virtually troublefree day. Fifth after the opening section, which contained a 1km stretch so rough that drivers were forced to tackle it in first gear at little more than 10kph, the Spaniards climbed to third on the penultimate section. Punctures on the first and third sections, the latter which they had to stop and change, and a damaged right rear shock absorber on the third test were the only troubles for the Ford duo.
"We lost about 30 seconds with the first puncture but with only 4km to the finish we decided not to stop and change it which was the right decision," said Sainz. "We punctured on the third section after just 29kms and with another 45km to go we had to stop and change the tyre which took just over a minute. We've kept a pretty constant speed all day and I'm happy with third position. This is a very long and very tough rally and as tomorrow's leg uses the same roads, but in the opposite direction, conditions won't get any easier."
Martin was astonished by the conditions on his first visit to Kenya. It took time for the Estonian to find a satisfactory pace and his first impressions of the rally were 'horrible'. However, as he became acclimatised to the hazards, his pace grew more consistent.
He had to stop and change a puncture on the second section but his Focus RS was as reliable as his colleagues' cars. "On the first section I didn't know at what pace I should be driving so we had a few scary moments," said Martin. "But once I found a speed which didn't threaten our reliability, everything settled down. It's a very, very difficult rally and a big challenge but I'm going to stay at this pace and just wait and see what happens."
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The Safari lived up to its fearsome reputation. Championship leader Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) retired on the first section with engine failure, along with Freddy Loix (Hyundai) whose clutch failed. Team-mate Armin Schwarz stopped on the following liaison section with alternator failure and Francois Delecour (Mitsubishi) retired with a blown engine after the third section. The final test accounted for both Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) who lost a rear wheel and Petter Solberg (Subaru) who stopped with engine troubles. Solberg earlier lost 30 minutes with clutch problems on the opening section and a broken turbo on the third. Few drivers escaped problems, with the exception of leader Tommi Makinen (Subaru). He built a lead of 2min 40sec before easing off too much on the final stage after a communication mix-up with his spotter helicopter. World champion Richard Burns (Peugeot) lies eighth, the Briton losing time in the third section when oil leaking from a shock absorber caught fire while Alister McRae (Mitsubishi) lost 37 minutes on the last test when his suspension broke and he had to repair it himself to reach the finish.
The second leg is the longest of the rally and repeats all the sections used today but in the opposite direction. The day starts and ends with the 73.93km test from Kedong to Ngema, the only section to be used twice. After leaving Nairobi at 04.45, drivers face five sections covering 410.47km before returning to the Kenyan capital at 19.45.