Sebastien Ogier dominates Friday’s Safari Rally Kenya opener

Sebastien Ogier dominates Friday's Safari Rally Kenya opener

Sebastien Ogier dominated the Friday afternoon’s Safari Rally Kenya opener ,pulling ahead of the current leader in the World Rally Championship Kalle Rovanpera as Hyundai contender Thierry Neuville’s chances of victory ended after retiring.

The 2023 WRC Safari Rally stage events got started early on Friday at 08:00 local time in Naivasha, Kenya, with the Toyota Gazoo Racing team gaining momentum to replicate last season’s 1-2-3-4 finish. However, they were forced to settle for a trio after Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi squeezed into fourth place ahead of Takamoto Katsuta.

Ott Tanak of M-Sport Ford recorded the quickest time through the 4.84-kilometer (3-mile) Kasarani Super Special stage on Thursday. However, on Friday’s first stage, mother nature revealed the wild side of the African savanna, requiring the Estonian M-Sport Ford rally driver to slow down for Kenyan wildlife.

Toyota driver Ogier outperformed Rovanpera despite starting first on the road, winning four of the day’s six stages to hold a 22.8 second lead going into Saturday.

Ogier had a 2.5 second lead after the morning run with the only thing holding him back was the absence of a hybrid on stage four. He followed that with a flawless afternoon performance to win all three stages.

Elfyn Evans in the sister Toyota Yaris GR held onto third place with remarkable ease (+43.5s) after Neuville dropped to fourth due to a suspension issue on stage six.

Neuville’s Hyundai teammate Esapekka Lappi inherited fourth place (+54.0s), soon after losing time due to a puncture earlier in the day. Takamoto Katsuta marked the third Toyota finishing the day in fifth place, ahead of Dani Sordo of Hyundai.

Ott Tanak of M-Sport moved up to seventh (+3m03s) as teammate Pierre-Louis Loubet fell to eighth due to tyre issues. Loubet had lost a tyre off the rim in the morning.

Ogier nearly replicated his morning pass across the Loldia stage, which was more drier than the first pass.

Ogier was once more unbeatable in the test after the hybrid problem was fixed, clocking a time 8.4s faster than Lappi who finished second. As a result of the effort, Ogier increased his overall rally lead over Rovanpera by 15.3 seconds. Rovanpera suffered with understeer and thought he had made a minor setup error.

Tanak improved to record the third-fastest time, albeit being 10.2 seconds slower. The Estonian said that after having trouble with the handling in the morning loop, his team had been able to modify the suspension on his Puma.

Although the stage was relatively uneventful, Tanak’s teammate Loubet had to stop 11.3 kilometers into the 19.17-kilometer race to fix a wheel. The Frenchman dipped his time by 2m45.8s.

Katsuta lost time as a result of an incident with a zebra that led to damage to the front of his GR Yaris, but he was still able to maintain fifth place overall.

On stage six, Ogier kept up his momentum and won his third stage of the competition. While he was once more outpaced by Lappi, who ran only 1.2 seconds slower, the choice to bring only one spare to reduce the weight of his GR Yaris proved to be brilliant.

During the test, Rovanpera appeared to have less understeer, but he still lost 2.6 seconds to Ogier.

The retirement of fourth-placed Neuville, was the main topic from the stage. 7.9 kilometers into the 13.12-kilometer test, the Hyundai i20N driven by the Belgian experienced a front-left suspension breakdown due to compression.

Neuville pushed the car until it approached an access road but wouldn’t go further than that. At the lead, Ogier capped an ideal afternoon by beating Rovanpera by 2.4 seconds in the 30.6km stage seven second pass through Kedong.

Evans was lucky to avoid losing time when he hit a shrub, as Katsuta was fortunate to avoid a front right puncture despite smashing his GR Yaris’ windshield when he hit a tree.

Tanak lost the test to Ogier by 21.3 seconds while acknowledging that he was unable to move any quicker than Ogier. Loubet, his teammate from M-Sport, performed even worse as he had to change another wheel, which took extra time.

The hardest part of the 2023 WRC Safari Rally will take place on Saturday, and it could determine who will win the rally’s 70th running. It begins with Soysambu (29.32 kilometers/ 18.21 miles), Lake Elementaita (15.08 kilometers/ 9 miles), and the scenic Sleeping Warrior Hill (31.04 kilometers/ 19 miles), covering a grueling 150.88 kilometers (94 miles).

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