Nairobi, Kenya – Thierry Neuville grabbed the Safari Rally lead on Friday morning as the tough, tight course turned the race into a battle for survival.
Neuville won the first two of the three morning stages to take the lead from Sebastian Ogier, who had won the opener the night before.
The unforgiving route through the Kenyan bush took its toll.
“The only target was to not damage the car,” Neuville said winning the second stage. “It’s already very demanding. ”
“Incredibly rough. Very deep ruts – I was close to rolling the car a couple of times in the ruts,” he said. “As we can see, we need to survive.”
The Belgian finished the last stage of the morning with two slow punctures on his Hyundai but was still second fastest.
Kalle Rovanpera won the closer in his Toyota Yaris to move to 5.1 seconds off the lead and expressed relief rather than elation.
“That’s a big surprise,” said the Finn. “It felt really bad for me.”
The morning also introduced the drivers to the fine, black ‘fesh-fesh’ sand.
“The condition is so bad and there are big ruts all the time,” said Rovanpera after the day’s second stage. “At the end of the stage, I had a puncture, and there was so much dust in the car I couldn’t breathe. It’s Safari for sure.”
Ott Tanak nursed his damaged Hyundai to fifth on the final stage of the morning. He trails Neuville by 26.2sec.
“Believe me, this is the least of the worries,” the Estonian said of the time gap.
Ogier was slowed by the failure of his Toyota’s left rear shock absorber but completed the morning stages ahead of the mid-day service.
“Broken suspension on the rear. I just had to make it through very slow,” said the seven-time French world champion who was in seventh more than 2 minutes behind Neuville.
Elfyn Evans, who started the race second in the driver standings, was the most high profile of the casualties.
He smashed the suspension on his Toyota Yaris and came to a halt with his front right wheel hanging off.
“There was a stone that was sticking out more into the road than I had anticipated,” the Welshman said.
“We clipped it with the front right wheel, and it was enough to break the suspension quite badly. There is no way to repair it or continue from here.”
Spaniard Dani Sordo also went out after going on safari onto the bush and spinning his Hyundai into the undergrowth.