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McRae gets quarter century as 11 finish Safari
14 July 2002
In addition to scoring his third Safari success in six years, Colin McRae established a new record in Kenya by becoming the first driver to notch up 25 outright World Rally Championship wins.
The Ford driver took command of the African round on the afternoon of Leg 2 and held it to the finish, despite constant pressure from Peugeot-Michelin's Harri Rovanperä who finished hard on the experienced Scot's heels.
Despite the decision to switch to a shorter, more compact format to mark the 50th anniversary of this legendary event, the conditions were as punishing as ever and only 11 of the 48 starters saw the chequered flag. Retirements amongst the front-runners included championship leader Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin), although the Finn stays on top of the provisional Drivers' points table, while his French team holds first place in the Manufacturers' classification.
Its format may have been tailored to fall in line with modern-day World Championship requirements, but the 2002 Safari Rally will long be remembered as one of the roughest and toughest of recent years.
And for the third time since 1997, the fastest man in Africa was Ford's Colin McRae who followed up his successes with Ford-Michelin in 1999 and Subaru in 1997 with another perfectly-paced run in the savannah of the Rift Valley.
The Scot inherited the lead when early pacesetter Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru) was amongst those to fall foul of the hostile terrain on Day 2. But that didn't mean he was able to control from the front since Peugeot-Michelin's Harri Rovanperä (2nd here with the 206 WRC twelve months ago) kept on the pressure all the way to the flag thanks to an equally intelligent pace. In the end, however, the Finn was forced to settle for silver by a margin of under 3 minutes, a mere 'cat's whisker' in Safari terms given that the top six of this year's event was split by more than half an hour!
The result puts Colin McRae back into the World Championship frame since it takes him to within just 7 points of current series leader Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot-Michelin), one of the many WRC stars whose visit to Kenya ended in retirement. In fact the Finn had the dubious honour of getting the missing list under way when his engine came to a stop shortly after the start of the very first competitive section.
Grönholm's name wasn't alone on that list for long however. By the end of Leg 1, he had been joined by five other WRC regulars, while the second day saw the demise of three fellow World Champions: Tommi Mäkinen (suspension, Subaru), Carlos Sainz (engine, Ford) and defending champ Richard Burns (Peugeot-Michelin). The latter's bid to score a third Safari success was thwarted not by a mechanical problem but by getting helplessly stuck in the deep soft sand that led to the service park 'In' control! Needless to say, the British driver was devastated.
Only 11 of the event's 48 starters succeeded in reaching the Nairobi finish and, surprisingly, the majority of them could be termed Safari novices. These included Thomas Rädstrom (3rd), whose untiring efforts were rewarded with a place on the podium alongside McRae and Rovanperä, as well as his Citroën-Michelin team-mate Sébastien Loeb who claimed no fewer than three fastest times from eleven despite zero previous experience of this event. Indeed, the French manufacturer was also on its first visit to Kenya and its success in getting both its cars to the finish was one of the major accomplishments of the weekend.
Another relative novice making headlines was Peugeot-Michelin's Gilles Panizzi (6th) whose experience prior to the start amounted to just half a day of competitive action in 2000. This time round, the Frenchman succeeded in reaching the finish… and in the points too. Not only that, Day 2 saw the asphalt ace posted the first fastest time on gravel before adding a further best time on the final morning.
Seventh place for Roman Kresta at the finish made up for Skoda-Michelin's understandable disappointment at losing Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson who were forced out with mechanical problems while lying inside the top-six. However, the three Manufacturers' points harvested by the Czech driver has allowed his team to move into 4th place in the championship standings.
Finally, full marks must go to Hyundai-Michelin's Juha Kankkunen (8th) and Mitsubishi-Michelin's Alister McRae (9th) who persevered in the face of adversity to reach the finish despite a number of time-consuming troubles. Although they completed the distance more than an hour adrift of Colin McRae, both had the satisfaction of collecting welcome Manufacturers' points for their respective teams.
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