Belgian driver Thierry Neuville kicks up the dirt in his Hyundai on the opening stage of the Safari Rally in Kenya
Nairobi (AFP) - Sebastien Ogier took the lead after Thursday’s opening special as he looks to win a second straight Safari Rally, while championship leader Kalle Rovanpera suffered a puncture in Kenya.
Ogier, winner in 2021 when the race returned to the WRC following a 19-year absence, faced off against Ford’s Sebastien Loeb in the 4.84km two-at-a-time first special on the edge of the capital.
The two Frenchmen have a total of 17 world titles between them over the last 18 years but are now both semi-retired.
“I came back for the people,” said Toyota driver Ogier.
“It’s very colourful here and the people in this country give us amazing support.
“The challenge is going to be big. It’s not the kind of rally I usually love because it’s going to be really rough but we will try to survive it.”
Belgian Thierry Neuville, who is second in the standings, finished the stage 0.6 seonds behind Ogier in second place.
Rovanpera spun off and finished in 11th place, 11.6 seconds behind Ogier.
“It’s a shame. But fortunately it’s a long rally,” said the 21-year-old Finn who currently has a 55-point lead in the championship over Neuville after five races.
The Superspecial followed the ceremonial flagging off by Kenyan president Uhuru Kenya, who lauded the WRC for keeping the Safari rally in the calender until 2026.
The president said the event had boosted the country’s economy by injecting six billion shillings (£50 million) on its return to the WRC last year after the 19-year hiatus.
“The historic nature of the rally is undeniable,” said Uhuru.
“The rally was of great benefit to the country, injecting six billion shillings in our economy, with every sector sharing the pie, including players in the hospitality and transport sectors as well as micro, small and medium enterprises in Naivasha and its surrounding towns.”
The rally continues on Friday with six stages, totalling 124km, around Lake Naivasha.
1. Sebastien Ogier - Benjamin Veillas (FRA/Toyota) in 3min 18.8sec, 2. Thierry Neuville - Martijn Wydaeghe (BEL/Hyundai) at 0.6sec, 3. Ott Tanak - Martin Jarveoja (EST/Hyundai) 1.1, 4. Elfyn Evans - Scott Martin (GBR/Toyota) 1.2, 5. Sebastien Loeb - Isabelle Galmiche (FRA/M-Sport Ford) 1.8
Selected: 11. Kalle Rovanpera - Jonne Halttunen (FIN/Toyota) 11.6