Sébastien Loeb went fastest on the first full-length stage of Safari Rally Kenya despite an incident with a small tree, as minor gremlins afflicted all three Hyundai drivers.
Sébastien Ogier had held a 0.6-second lead over Thierry Neuville after Thursday afternoon’s Kasarani superspecial and extended his overall lead on the 11.9-mile Loldia test.
But the reigning world champion was only third fastest, albeit just 0.5s down on Loeb’s stage-winning pace, on SS2 as Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans muscled his way into second spot overall with the second-best time on the stage – 0.2s down on Loeb’s effort.
Loeb was perhaps lucky to set such a strong time after a bit of a skirmish with the local scenery that dislodged some of the rear-left bodywork of his Ford Puma Rally1.
“It was nearly nothing,” Loeb said.
“I just corrected a note and the next one was a tricky one so I had it a bit late and I touched a little bit a small tree. I need to have a look but it should be OK.”
Loeb sits 1.3s off the lead overall in what is an M-Sport 3-4-5 ahead of Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith.
Safari Rally Kenya was the best event of Fourmaux’s breakthrough WRC season last year as he claimed fifth overall and won his very first stage.
And the M-Sport driver was similarly strong on Friday morning’s opening stage as he lost just 1.5s to stage-winning team-mate Loeb.
“Yeah I’m happy, it was a nice stage for us,” said Fourmaux. “We were enjoying the stage, the car was OK and really good so we were enjoying.”
Greensmith meanwhile “struggled to find a rhythm” in the middle part of Loldia but was still competitive, stopping the clocks just 4.8s off the quickest time.
He said: “If that’s not an easy stage but the rest of the weekend, bwoah!”
Ott Tänak won last time out on Rally Italy but ran into some mechanical drama very early on the first proper stage of the Safari as the gearstick in his Hyundai fractured.
Initially Tänak was still able to change gear – and could use the gearstick to go down the cogs – he had to reach down near his right foot and change up gears via a rod at the bottom of the lever.
But towards the end of the stage the gearstick finally gave way and snapped off, forcing Tänak to change all gears in an unorthodox manner.
“I need an automatic gearbox now,” Tänak smiled, having lost 20 seconds.
Team-mate Thierry Neuville didn’t have a great experience either, also reporting “a problem with my gear shifter” at the end of Loldia.
Neuville’s issue wasn’t as obvious to the naked eye, but he said the gear changes were “really harsh so [I] lost a lot of time”, and gearbox oil was seen on the surface of the road after he pulled away from the stop control.
Neuville’s time was competitive with those around him though as he dropped just a single second to road sweeper and championship leader Kalle Rovanperä. He’s sixth, 15.8s down on the lead and 1.6s ahead of M-Sport’s Craig Breen.
Rovanperä remains rooted in the lower half of the top 10 though following a lucky escape on Thursday’s superspecial where he ran wide and nearly rolled his GR Yaris Rally1.
He’s ninth, 7.5s behind eighth-placed Takamoto Katsuta2 but now 11.2s up on Tänak who slipped from third to 11th.
Oliver Solberg rounds out the top 10 in the third Hyundai, 2.3s up on Tänak, as he also reported an issue with his car where it felt “quite harsh”.