Kalle Rovanpera capitalized on Toyota teammate Sebastien Ogier’s late misfortune to lead after Safari Rally Kenya’s vicious opening leg on Friday.
FIA World Rally Championship points leader Rovanpera had languished in 11th overall on Thursday evening after puncturing a tire on the curtain-raising super special stage, but was immediately into the podium fight on Friday’s sandy and rocky stages on the shores of the Great Rift Valley’s Lake Naivasha.
Car-breaking roads and deep, soft, trapping sand known locally as fesh-fesh punished crews as more than half of the WRC field suffered some form of drama during the day, but Toyota Gazoo Racing’s GR Yaris Rally1 cars performed well under the pressure.
Reigning WRC champ and defending Safari winner Ogier picked up where he had left off on Thursday and led for the majority of Friday’s six stages. He was briefly passed by teammate Elfyn Evans at the top of the leader board in the morning, but moved back in front in the afternoon’s opener when the Welshman’s Yaris suffered a puncture.
Rovanpera lingered inside the top-three positions and managed to earn three stage wins before seizing the top spot late in the day when Ogier stopped to change a wheel during the day’s final grueling stage, the rocky, fesh-fesh strewn, 19.4-mile Kedong 2.
Rovanpera was pleased, if a little surprised, to be carrying a 22.4s buffer into Saturday’s monster leg despite running as first car on the road on Friday, effectively road-sweeping for the cars behind.
“I think we did a good job,” said the 21-year-old Finn. “The plan was to be fast and safe and we are in a good position now, but tomorrow will be very challenging.
“I’ve never really experienced anything like this before. Last year we didn’t have this many soft sections of road, so that was something a bit new.
“Of course, it’s always challenging here,” he added. “There was still some [road] cleaning on the second pass, but other than that we have enjoyed the stages, except the last one — I think we all felt relieved to finish that.”
Evans remained Rovanpera’s nearest challenger, but he found it difficult to judge exactly how hard to push and what risks to take. He ended just 2.9s clear of third-placed Hyundai driver Ott Tanak, who denied Toyota an overnight podium lockout.
Tanak started on the back foot when the gear lever of his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 snapped during the first stage. Thanks to some quick thinking, the Estonian carried out a makeshift repair, using the car’s spare wheel brace as a temporary shifter before going on to claim a pair of top-three times.
Takamoto Katsuta was demoted from second to fourth overall in the final stage. The Toyota youngster dropped time while passing a stricken Craig Breen — who retired his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 with right-front suspension damage — and eventually ended the day 1.3s down on Tanak.
Thierry Neuville, currently second in the WRC points, also had a troublesome day with his Hyundai. The car briefly lost power after scooping up a cloud of dust on the third test, with the Belgian also complaining of traction and drivability issues. He trailed the front-runners by almost one minute, ahead of Ogier, who was 1m10.7s further back, but more than two minutes ahead of Oliver Solberg in the third Hyundai.
Last year, Ogier clawed back a similar deficit to take victory after breaking a suspension damper on Friday. Anything is still possible, although the Frenchman appeared to be visibly dejected back at the Naivasha service park.
“Being so far behind, I can’t really say we are in the fight,” he said. “Of course, a lot of things can still happen, but it’s not the same fight when you are this far behind. I am pretty sure things will happen tomorrow, but it’s still frustrating.”
Gus Greensmith was the only M-Sport Ford championship contender to finish the day, but he was almost 15 minutes off the pace after stopping to make stage-side repairs on Kedong 1.
After setting fastest time on the day’s opening stage, nine-time WRC champ Sebastien Loeb’s Puma stopped on the way back to midday service after an O-ring failure and small fire, while Adrien Fourmaux’s similar car also bowed out with a transmission-related failure. Both are expected to restart on Saturday, but with points-paying opportunities a long shot now.
“I can’t remember when we lost all three points-scoring cars on a day, I have to say,” said a disappointed M-Sport boss, Malcolm Wilson. “Honestly I cannot remember the last time that happened.”
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Safari Rally debutant Kajetan Kajetanowicz dominated the opening leg to build a healthy lead in his Skoda Fabia Evo. The Pole won four of the six special stages to end the day with an advantage of 1m13.5s over the all-American crew of Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani in their Citroen C3.
Johnston had been in an enthralling fight with Martin Prokop for second and were separated by just 6.1s going into the closing stage. But Czech Prokop retired his Ford Fiesta Rally2 just three miles from the end when the engine stalled and failed to restart.
Johnston hadn’t been without issues in the final stage, either, with brake problems slowing him. “The pedal went to the floor and I drove the last 12km trying not to use the brakes,” he explained.
Roads further north around Lake Elmenteita host Saturday’s six stages and 93.75 competitive miles, the longest leg of the event.
The day begins with Soysambu (18.16 miles), which has been lengthened since last year. Next up is a blast over Elmenteita’s (9.37 miles) familiar tracks in the Delamere Estate, followed by Sleeping Warrior (19.29 miles), set in the shadow of a hill that resembles a Masai warrior lying down. All three stages are then driven for a second time after service.
WRC Safari Rally Kenya, leading positions after Day One, SS7
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h20m58.1s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +22.4s
3 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +25.3s
4 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +26.6s
5 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +57.5s
6 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m08.2s
7 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +4m27.1s
8 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 leader) +9m51.1s
9 Sean Johnston/Alex Kihurani (Citroen C3 – WRC2) +11m04.6s
10 Jourdan Serderidis/Frederic Miclotte (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +11m23.6s
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