Neuville leads battle-scarred WRC field in Kenya

Thierry Neuville at the Safari Rally Kenya

Thierry Neuville leads the Safari Rally Kenya after a damaging Friday of running for World Rally Championship drivers.

Kenya’s return to the calendar after a 19-year absence tripped up many, with Elfyn Evans (Toyota), Dani Sordo (Hyundai), Kalle Rovanpera (Toyota) and Oliver Solberg (Hyundai) all were forced to retire.

By day’s end, Neuville held an 18.8s advantage to Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta, with Ott Tanak making it a provisional one-three for Hyundai as it stands.

Struck by a double puncture, Neuville had looked set to cede the lead to Rovanpera before the latter’s incident.

“We had some good stages today. Unfortunately, we also had a couple of punctures,” said Neuville.

“Some parts were really rough with big stones, you couldn’t avoid everything; you had to just cross your fingers that you didn’t pick up damage.

“Thankfully, we were able to manage things and get the car back to service. We have learned a lot and the team will look closely at the car this evening to prepare for another challenging day tomorrow.

“Saturday’s stages have different characteristics, and I’m sure we’ll see more things happening, so we have to stay out of trouble.”

As for Rovanpera, the story was one of frustration having been well placed.

“In the last stage just after the start, a lot of dust came up from the ground and I couldn’t see anything, so I had to slow down, and then we got stuck in the ruts,” said the Finn.

“It’s really frustrating because we were in a good situation before that. But the rally is not over and we will try to take what we can.”

Championship leader Sebastien Ogier (Toyota) is fourth, nearly two minutes behind Neuville following an early technical issue.

“We expected tough conditions here and it has not been a surprise to see everyone having a lot of trouble today,” said Ogier.

“We were a bit unlucky with the problem that we had this morning, which meant we had to drive slowly to bring the car back to service, but in the end we kept fighting.

“This afternoon the conditions were even more extreme, but we managed to get through without big dramas. We’re back in fourth tonight and a lot of things are still possible.”

Ominously, 2019 champion Tanak warned the stiffest challenges are still to come.

“We are only at the appetisers; the main meal is coming tomorrow,” he said.

“It is only going to get tougher. Even if you are two minutes behind, you could still win this rally based on what we’ve seen so far.”

The final two days of the event will comprise of 11 stages all up.

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