Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya ended a destructive opening leg of Kenya's Safari Rally in second place at the wheel of their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Spanish duo are 1min 32sec behind Tommi MÃ¤kinen, a small margin in Safari Rally terms,...
Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya ended a destructive opening leg of Kenya's Safari Rally in second place at the wheel of their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Spanish duo are 1min 32sec behind Tommi Mäkinen, a small margin in Safari Rally terms, after a gruelling day's competition across the vast open plains south of Nairobi.
Ford Martini team-mates François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup are fifth in their Focus RS, an excellent performance on their Kenyan debut, but Colin McRae and Nicky Grist retired from third on the penultimate section of the leg with a broken clutch.
As the 41 starters left Nairobi this morning, conditions were alien to competitors more used to searing heat when the rally was held in late February. Overnight rain turned the tracks into mudbaths and overcast skies kept temperatures down to 20°C. That was a relief to crews but the unique challenge of Kenya's open roads more than compensated in terms of difficulty.
A heavy rainy season earlier in the year took a fearsome toll on the tracks, washing away the topsoil and creating huge ruts. Experienced observers say this year's Safari is even rougher than usual, putting car reliability and tyre strength under immense pressure, and conditions proved too much for five leading entries who retired.
Madrid-based Sainz punctured a front right tyre on each of the opening two sections. He stopped to fit a replacement both times but on the second test sticky black cotton mud caked onto the wheel prevented him from removing the tyre and he had to continue to the end on the flat. However, fifth place quickly became second as Sainz set fastest time on each of the final two sections, despite torrential rain on the final 71km test which reduced visibility to the bare minimum.
"The day certainly ended better than it began," said 39-year-old Sainz. "I pushed hard over the final two sections to try to regain some of the time lost this morning and considering this is the Safari, where the rally is usually won by minutes rather than seconds, the time gap between ourselves and Tommi is not great.
"The last section was very hard. After 12km the storm began and we could see very little. If it's wet again tomorrow it won't be so good for us as Pirelli's tyres work better in the dry than the wet on these type of roads but we must just wait and see," he said.
Delecour has been amazed by the unique nature of the rally. "It's quite incredible, like nothing else I've done in my entire rally career," said the 38-year-old Frenchman. "I'm really enjoying it and starting to get used to the roads a little now, although I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to some of the conditions I've seen today.
A puncture on the second section was his only problem, although leaving the roof ventilation system open for the final section proved a mistake. "When the storm arrived we got soaked to the skin!" laughed co-driver Grataloup.
McRae was comfortable in third, taking no risks, when hopes of a fourth consecutive win ended on the third section. Just 10km from the end a steering joint broke, allowing an arm to pull out of the rack. He stopped to make repairs but less than 500 metres from the finish the arm came out again, pitching the Focus through a fence and into a field. A cracked windscreen and damaged front suspension were the obvious signs of damage but the effort of getting the Focus back on the road and limping to the end with the front wheels pointing in opposite directions proved too much for the clutch which burned out.
"It's disappointing because everything had been going to plan up to that point," said McRae. "We were driving carefully and sensibly and pacing ourselves according to the conditions. We'd been free of punctures and the car was running well but you never know when the Safari Rally is going to turn round and bite you."
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The Safari Rally lived up to its reputation as the most demanding event of the season with a string of leading retirements. First to go was Richard Burns (Subaru) who hit a bump and broke a shock absorber after 70km of the opening 117km section. Team-mate Toshihiro Arai stopped on the final section with a broken suspension strut. Peugeot lost two cars on that same test. Didier Auriol retired when his car caught fire after rolling while Marcus Grönholm's miserable season continued when he ripped off a wheel and ran out of time while trying to limp through. Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) took the lead on the second section and then was never headed, the Finn's only difficulty coming when a bird flew into his car on the opening section, smashing the windscreen. Team-mate Freddy Loix suffered less well, the Belgian losing 15 minutes after changing a puncture and replacing a broken suspension arm on the third section and then dropping another eight minutes on the last test with a broken driveshaft. Armin Schwarz (Skoda) was the surprise leader after the first section but two punctures on the third, both of which he stopped to change, and the torrential rain on the final test cost many minutes.
The second leg is the hardest day's competition in the world championship season. Drivers leave Nairobi at 04.00 for the long drive north towards the Equator. They tackle five competitive sections comprising 426.24km before returning to the capital, where they arrive at 20.50 after covering 901.57km.
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 44min 34sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 2hr 46min 06sec 3. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 49min 50sec 4. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 2hr 51min 49sec 5. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 2hr 53min 54sec 6. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 2hr 58min 54sec 7. B Thiry/S Prévot B Skoda Octavia 3hr 04min 17sec 8. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 11min 58sec 9. G Pozzo/D Stillo RA Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 28min 57sec 10 A Cavenagh/S Haji EAK Subaru Impreza 3hr 32min 37sec