Safari Rally - Ford Martini Leg 1 Report

Solberg heads Ford trio in dramatic Safari Kenya's Safari Rally today lived up to its reputation as one of the most demanding tests of man and machine in world championship motorsport. But despite everything that the rally could throw at...

Solberg heads Ford trio in dramatic Safari

Kenya's Safari Rally today lived up to its reputation as one of the most demanding tests of man and machine in world championship motorsport. But despite everything that the rally could throw at them, Ford drivers Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Petter Solberg emerged from a gruelling first leg to maintain their positions on the leaderboard in their Focus World Rally Cars.

Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills led the way in fourth with official Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist in fifth and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya in 10th. All had remarkable stories to tell of this opening day of the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship on the vast plains south of the rally's base in the capital city of Nairobi.

Air temperatures of more than 30°C rose to almost 50°C inside the cockpits of the three Focus cars as drivers faced more than 350km of competitive driving - the length of a traditional three-day championship rally. But the Safari is not normal and boulder strewn gravel tracks, ditches, river crossings and washaways provided the ultimate test of reliability.

Solberg, fifth here last year, delivered the performance of the day. After being held up by a lorry on a narrow stretch of the first open-road section, the 25-year-old Norwegian lost more time in the dust of other competitors before a puncture and damaged suspension made it a trying start. Even so they lay 9th.

But Solberg and Mills avoided further serious problems to climb the order. Second fastest time on the final 50km section moved the duo into fourth, their highest ever standing on a championship rally.

"It's been a tremendous day after all those difficulties on the first section," said Solberg. "The roads have been much rougher than last year so I tried to use my head and drive cautiously over the really bad sections. I pushed a little harder on the last test and it paid off. I think I'll sleep well tonight."

McRae and Grist enjoyed a troublefree start, aside from changing four punctures, to lie fourth but a broken shock absorber in the third section signaled the start of his problems. Three kilometres from the end of the final section the entire front left suspension strut forced its way through the bonnet of the Focus, leaving the left side of the car dragging on the asphalt.

Amazingly McRae nursed the car out of the section and back to the final service park but such was the damage that he was unable to obtain sufficient steering lock to turn the car into the time control. Because the dragging suspension simply dug into the ground, the car stalled several times and it seemed sure McRae's efforts would be in vain as regulations forbade his watching team personnel to provide assistance. Eventually McRae was able to reach the salvation of his mechanics, who themselves worked superbly to change the entire front corner of the Focus in 45 minutes.

"After all our problems, I can't believe we're still in the rally, let alone in fifth," said McRae. "It was a miracle that we got the car back to service and when it kept stalling I really thought it was all over. I feel exhausted, not physically but by the emotional tension of everything that happened," he said.

Sainz and Moya were fourth when they too broke a shock absorber on the penultimate test. They stopped on the following liaison section to examine the damage and when they jacked up the Focus the rear suspension fell away from the top mount. Retirement looked certain but the Spanish pair worked on the car alone for almost 20 minutes to make repairs and continue.

Cruelly a left front puncture in the final section brought further woe, a damaged jack meaning they dropped more time as they struggled to fit a replacement tyre. "When the suspension came away I was sure we would retire," said Sainz. "I even radioed the team to say I thought it was finished but we managed to make the repairs and we're still going. On this rally so much can happen and even when you have dropped a lot of time you can remain in contention for a good finish."

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was full of praise for Solberg's efforts. "He stayed out of trouble, he's driven very sensibly and put all the experience he gained from last year into good use today.

"But this has probably been the most difficult day in my rallying career. We've had shock absorber problems that we've not experienced before and I don't know why. We have engineers working back at the workshop trying to find the problems so I'm hopeful we'll have solutions. It's been a very hard day and the puncture rate has shown just what a hard rally this is," added Wilson.

News from our Rivals

Today has belonged to Briton Richard Burns (Subaru) and team-mate Juha Kankkunen. Burns was fastest on three of the four sections to open up a 4min 24sec lead over Kankkunen, whose only problem came on the opening section when he hit a cow. Didier Auriol (Seat) was quickest on that first section and put in consistently good times to hold third but team-mate Toni Gardemeister was forced to retire after the second test. The young Finn and co-driver Paavo Lukander strained their necks after a heavy landing and after having to remove a damaged door themselves in the section, they felt extremely unwell as clouds of dust filled the cockpit. The team doctor decided the only option was for them to withdraw. World champion Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) was second fastest on the opening test but retired at the end of the next. Three punctures damaged the rear suspension and when the car stopped at the finish and failed to re-start, there was little the Finn could do. Team-mate Freddy Loix survived a string of punctures to hold eighth. Marcus Grönholm and Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) had difficult days. Grönholm had four punctures, two on the opening section while Panizzi lost more than 20 minutes after two punctures and a broken suspension delayed him on the same test. He finally retired after the last section with a broken suspension triangle. Armin Schwarz and Luis Climent (Skoda) both survived the day, Climent recovering from early suspension problems.

Tomorrow's Route

After the gruelling nature of today's leg, the drivers will certainly not be looking forward to tomorrow's second leg to the north of Nairobi. After restarting at 04.45, they face an incredible 1193km journey crossing and re-crossing the Equator before returning to the capital after almost 15½ hours' driving. The four competitive sections cover 359.32km, the opening test the longest of the rally at 123.21km.

Leaderboard after Leg 1

1.  R Burns/R Reid              GB      Subaru Impreza  2hr 40min 22sec 
2.  J Kankkunen/J Repo          FIN     Subaru Impreza  2hr 44min 46sec 
3.  D Auriol/D Giraudet         F       Seat Cordoba    2hr 47min 59sec
4.  P Solberg/P Mills           N       Ford Focus      2hr 53min 39sec
5.  C McRae/N Grist             GB      Ford Focus      2hr 53min 54sec
6.  T Arai/R Freeman            J       Subaru Impreza  2hr 57min 36sec
7.  M Gronholm/T Rautiainen     FIN     Peugeot 206     2hr 59min 35sec
8.  F Loix/S Smeets             B    Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 00min 40sec
9.  A Schwarz/M Hiemer          D       Skoda Octavia   3hr 05min 02sec
10 C Sainz/L Moya               E       Ford Focus      3hr 05min 15sec

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Freddy Loix , Richard Burns , Gilles Panizzi , Didier Auriol , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Armin Schwarz , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Paavo Lukander , Malcolm Wilson