Belgian Thierry Neuville led the way in his Hyundai after a battle royal on the unforgiving terrain of the Safari Rally in the Kenyan bush as rivals Sebastian Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanpera and Dani Sordi endured a range of setbacks.
Seven-time world champion Ogier had won Thursday’s opener but then lost ground as Neuville won the first two of the three morning stages on the southern shore of Lake Naivasha to take the lead from the Frenchman, who was slowed by the failure of his Toyota’s left rear shock absorber.
“We learned a lot today,” said Neuville. “We have to make use of that tomorrow and cut down on mistakes.”
“The only target was to not damage the car,” Neuville said after winning the second stage.
“I was close to rolling the car a couple of times in the ruts. As we can see, we need to survive.”
Opting for survival mode duly served its purpose as he rode with the punches while, overcoming two slow punctures in the morning and showing clean rear tires on special stage six to stay out in front.
Kalle Rovanpera won two stages in his Toyota Yaris to move provisionally to 5.1 seconds off the lead, only to become stuck in the fine black ‘fesh-fesh’ sand in the day’s closer.
“At the end of the stage, I had a puncture, and there was so much dust in the car I couldn’t breathe,” said Rovanpera.
“It’s Safari for sure.”
Saturday will see six special timed stages and five more are slated for Sunday as Nairobi welcomes back WRC action for the first time in two decades.
Standings after opening seven specials:
1. Thierry Neuville (BEL/Hyundai) 1hr 23min 19.1sec, 2. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN/Toyota) at 18.8sec, 3. Ott Tanak (EST/Hyundai) 55.8, 4. Sebastien Ogier (FRA/Toyota) 1:49.4, 5. Gus Greensmith (GBR/M-Sport Ford) 1:56.1, 6. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA/M-Sport Ford) 2:19.1
Retired: Elfyn Evans (GBR/Toyota)(ES3), Dani Sordo-Borja Rozada (ESP/Hyundai) (ES3), Kalle Rovanpera (FIN/Toyota)(ES7)
SS best times: Ogier 2 (ES1, ES7 ex-aequo), Neuville 3 (ES2, ES3, ES6), Rovanpera 1 (ES4, ES5), Katsuta 1 (ES7 ex-aequo)