Sébastien Ogier set a hot early pace at Safari Rally Kenya on Thursday afternoon as the top three drivers were blanketed by less than a second at a thrilling opening in Nairobi.
As the FIA World Rally Championship returned to Africa for the first time in 19 years, the series leader was 0.3sec faster than Toyota Yaris team-mate Kalle Rovanperä in the curtain-raising 4.84km Super Special Kasarani on the edge of the capital.
Elfyn Evans completed a Toyota Gazoo Racing clean sweep of the top three, the Welshman a further 0.4sec back.
Ogier and Ott Tänak went head-to-head in the final frontline heat around the sweeping curves and jumps of the purpose-built track in front of an excited large crowd. Kicking up huge plumes of dust, Ogier beat the Hyundai i20 driver by 2.5sec.
Rovanperä, whose father, Harri, twice finished second on the gruelling Safari, was a clear winner over Hyundai’s Dani Sordo. Evans came out on top against Thierry Neuville, who conceded a few seconds after running his i20 wide.
Tänak’s pace was good enough to secure fourth, with Neuville 5.0sec off the pace in fifth and Takamoto Katsuta completing the top six. The Japanese driver was a further 0.6sec back, despite a briefly stalling his Yaris’ engine.
The stage followed a colourful opening ceremony in central Nairobi, with competitors flagged away by Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, the cabinet secretary for sports, culture and heritage, Amina Mohamed, and FIA President Jean Todt.
Friday’s opening leg covers the southern shore of Lake Naivasha. Chui Lodge (13.34km) and Oserian (18.87km) are both in the Oserengoni Wildlife Conservancy, which is home to lions, leopards, giraffes, antelope and buffalo.
They sandwich Kedong (32.68km), the longest stage of the rally and a Safari test of old. After service, all three are repeated to bring the day’s total to 129.78km.