(Reuters) – Toyota’s Sebastien Ogier led after the first leg of Kenya’s Safari Rally on Friday while Hyundai’s title contender Thierry Neuville smashed his car’s suspension and retired from the day’s action.
Eight times world champion Ogier, who is competing part-time this season, was 22.8 seconds clear of team mate and 2022 winner Kalle Rovanpera after the day’s six stages over rutted, rocky and sandy tracks.
“It’s been a good day. Except for the hybrid issue this morning we had a perfect day, so we can be happy,” said the Frenchman, who had been only 2.5 seconds clear of Rovanpera at midday service in Naivasha.
Ogier lightened his car by taking only one spare wheel for the afternoon loop of stages and won all three to end with a healthy lead.
Toyota filled the top three places with Elfyn Evans third and 43.5 seconds off the lead.
Belgian Neuville, the winner of the previous round in Sardinia and second in the championship behind Rovanpera after six rallies, retired in stage six when the front-left suspension failed.
“There was no warning at all; just before a left junction, the damper came out of its position and the top mount came loose under braking, which was the end of the rally for us,” said Neuville.
“With the conditions here, anything can happen, and now we have to analyse if there is an opportunity to return tomorrow and get back into the points.”
The local wildlife provided additional hazards, with Neuville distracted early on by a large bee buzzing around inside the car and other drivers having to slow for zebras in the road.
“We also had a unique situation in one of the hairpins on the final stage, where we had to stop to allow dust inside the cockpit to clear,” commented Hyundai’s Dani Sordo.
The rally, celebrating its 70th anniversary, started with a stage in Nairobi on Thursday. The first leg was based around Lake Naivasha, some 100km to the north-west of the capital.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)
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