Ford Rallye Sport drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led Kenya's Safari Rally as the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship returned to Nairobi this evening at the end of the second leg. Their Focus RS World Rally Car will start ...
Ford Rallye Sport drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led Kenya's Safari Rally as the toughest round of the FIA World Rally Championship returned to Nairobi this evening at the end of the second leg. Their Focus RS World Rally Car will start tomorrow's final day with a 2min 26.2sec lead while team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park lie fifth after another exceptional performance on their Safari debut.
This eighth round of the championship has again taken a fearsome toll on competitors. While neither McRae nor Märtin suffered any major problems on their Focus RS cars in the speed tests, Ford Rallye Sport team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were one of many retirements when they stopped with a broken oil pump belt this afternoon. So tough has this year's Safari been, that just 19 of the 48 starters remain.
The second leg returned to the vast open plains of the Rift Valley and the hilly Mau Escarpment, west of the Kenyan capital. Five tests covering 410.47km were scheduled on identical roads to yesterday, but tackled in the opposite direction. However, the second section was cancelled for safety reasons when low cloud on the escarpment meant team and rally helicopters could not take to the skies.
McRae, second overnight, moved ahead on the opening 73.93km test from Kedong to Ngema, which included a tortuous first gear descent of a 3km section known as 'the rockery' - a boulder strewn road capable of stopping a car in its tracks. He built a lead of almost 3min 30sec and although second-placed Harri Rovanperä cut that back during the afternoon, the 33-year-old Scot refused to take risks by increasing his pace on the car-breaking tracks.
"We've had a steady approach since the start, driving carefully to look after the car, and that's worked because we're leading and the car is in excellent condition," said McRae. "I could go quicker tomorrow but that would mean taking risks and I don't want to do that, although with Harri closing I can't afford to ease off either.
"Harri is pushing hard. He's taking time out of us and can still win but to continue to take time back from us, he has to risk additional punishment on his car. My plans for tomorrow will depend on what Harri decides. It will be a game of tactics," he added.
Märtin adopted a similar plan to McRae and the 26-year-old Estonian climbed to third. However, near the end of the evening service, the team noticed his engine's cam belt was damaged and they had to replace it. The Focus RS then refused to start and mechanics frantically changed a whole string of electrical components before it would fire up. He was late leaving the time control and the 11min 30sec additional penalties incurred dropped Märtin to fifth.
"Before the service we'd had no problems," said Märtin. "We maintained the same pace and I felt happy with that. Tomorrow won't be easy. There's still a long way to go and the most important thing for me and the team is to finish. With Carlos having retired, it's vital I score manufacturer points."
Sainz climbed to second on the opening section but slipped to third on the next when he stopped to change a puncture. However, his hopes of a podium finish ended after 46km of the 81.67km third section from Kerrerie to Seyabei, high on the Mau Escarpment, when his Focus RS stopped with no oil pressure in the engine - the result of a broken oil pump belt.
"The car just stopped suddenly, there was no warning at all," said 40-year-old Sainz. "I'm very disappointed because my position was looking good. It seems that I'm not so lucky on this rally after all."
Team director Malcolm Wilson decided to change the oil pump belt on both McRae and Märtin's cars at tonight's final service as a precaution. "Colin has driven very safely and Markko now needs to nurse the car to the end. I've never known a day on the Safari like this one and there are plenty more obstacles to overcome yet," he said.
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Today's drama even outshone that of yesterday. Overnight leader Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru) dropped eight minutes with a damper problem on the opening section, lost three minutes with a puncture on the next and then retired with broken left front suspension on the third. Fourth-placed Kenneth Eriksson (Skoda) retired 100 metres from the service park after the second section when an oil leak caused the gearbox to seize. But the biggest drama was reserved for Richard Burns (Peugeot). Having climbed to fifth, the Briton emerged from the third section with damaged front suspension and just three wheels on the car. As he attempted to enter the service park, his car became stuck in deep soil at the entrance, within sight of the control. With regulations barring any assistance, Burns and co-driver Robert Reid spent almost 30 minutes trying to dig their car out. But their efforts were in vain and they retired. Thomas Rådström and Sebastien Loeb (both Citroen) enjoyed good days, Loeb setting two fastest times, while Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) celebrated the birthday his co-driver and brother, Herve, with one quickest time. Alister McRae (Mitsubishi) regained a top 10 position despite a broken top suspension mount on the penultimate section which cost another 10 minutes.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally but with 262.85km of competition included in its 683.50km route, there is still plenty of opportunity for further drama. After another 04.45 start from Nairobi, drivers face three more sections, all repeats and in the same direction as those used on the first leg, before returning to the capital for the finish at 16.15.