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Colin McRae takes advantage as Kenya bites

13 July 2002


Ford driver Colin McRae has taken over the lead of the Safari Rally, as he and navigator Nicky Grist grabbed top spot from Tommi Mäkinen when the Finn hit problems in this morning's opening stage, and consolidated their advantage ever since.

Mäkinen was one of many leading drivers to hit trouble on the demanding African event. McRae's Ford team-mate Carlos Sainz retired with engine problems, Mäkinen himself succumbed to suspension damage and reigning world champion Richard Burns was forced out within sight of his own service trucks when he got his damaged Peugeot stuck in the entry to the Suswa service area.

The Focus RS WRC02s of McRae and Markko Martin were generally reliable all day, although Martin complained of excessive oversteer in the day's opening section. McRae was held up by Mäkinen's dust for around 20km of the day's opening competitive section, but the Scot still set a fast time to move into the lead. Having moved ahead, he then built up an advantage throughout the rest of the day to arrive back in Nairobi this evening with a cushion of nearly two and a half minutes.

“We're running at what I'd call a comfortable pace, not taking any big risks,'' the Scot said, ''But it's far from over yet - Harri's going well too, so there's still pressure. We're not going to try to retaliate to his pace - this speed has worked well so far so we'll just keep it tomorrow. I think if Harri keeps pushing he might easily have problems.”

Carlos Sainz lost time when he had to stop and change a puncture in CS7, but the Spaniard benefited from Mäkinen's problems as he moved into a battle with Harri Rovanperä for second overall. His hopes were dashed, however, by a terminal loss of oil pressure in his engine halfway through CS8., and he was forced to retire on the spot.

Martin again concentrated on building up experience of the Kenyan stages, but the Estonian's steady pace kept him comfortably inside the top six. The retirements of Mäkinen and Sainz helped him into third by the end of the day, before road penalties incurred because of complications during an oil pump belt change dropped him to fifth overnight.

The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Harri Rovanperä and Gilles Panizzi have also been reliable today, but team-mate Richard Burns broke a crossmember near the end of CS8. Although he reached service with the left-front wheel tucked up into the arch, the reigning world champion then got stuck in the deep sand at the entrance to the service area and he was forced to retire.

Both Rovanperä and Burns upped their pace early in the day, with the Finn benefiting from the problems that hit Kenneth Eriksson and Tommi Mäkinen, as he charged further into the top three. He soon became embroiled in a battle with Sainz for second overall, before the Spaniard's retirement handed the place to the Peugeot man, and left him to close the gap to leader McRae to just under two and a half minutes by the end of the day.

“It's been a hard day,'' Rovanpera said, ''I've been pushing a bit harder but we can't really take too many risks tomorrow. I think the aim has to be to get back to the finish.”

Burns, meanwhile, admitted to taking risks as he set fastest time - his first of the event - in CS7. Ironically, it was in the very next section that he broke a bolt on the crossmember and, even though he struggled to service with a damaged left-front wheel, he got stuck in deep sand at the gateway to the service park. Despite the best efforts of Burns and navigator Robert Reid, the 206 remained firmly embedded in the soil and they eventually went beyond their maximum lateness.

“That's easily the most disappointing retirement that I've ever had from a rally,'' the reigning champion said, ''We managed 50km of road section with the problem, and to retire in the service park is a complete insult. I don't know what else to say.”

The second remaining 206 WRC of Gilles Panizzi maintained a steady pace all day and the Frenchman holds sixth overnight.

Both Citroen drivers had a much happier day, after the team changed the specification of its shock absorbers back to the version it had used yesterday morning. Thomas Radstrom's improved pace allowed the Swede to move back towards the top six, and the various retirements lifted him to fourth by the end of the day. A number of fastest times, meanwhile, moved Sebastien Loeb into fifth by the time he returned to Nairobi.

Radstrom picked up ten seconds of road penalties in the morning when his team elected to change his gearbox after he hit clutch trouble on the road sections to and from Nairobi. That change meant that the Swede wasn't able to pick his preferred suspension, so he had to cope with too harsh a ride for his liking during the opening section. His Xsara performed reliably thereafter, however, while Loeb's car was reliable throughout.

“I'm much happier now that I've got the type of suspension that like,'' Radstrom admitted, ''It was bad this morning because we realised that the team would have to change the gearbox and that meant there wouldn't be time to really get the right suspension on the car, so we had to do one more section with far too hard a ride. It's very difficult to drive when it's like that, but I know that when we have the right set-up we can be on a good pace.”

Skoda looked to be on for a good result while Kenneth Eriksson remained in the rally, but the Swede's hopes of scoring points ended on CS7, when he broke a driveshaft and, despite reaching the following service, was unable to drive up the stone rampway into the service park. He retired on the spot, almost within sight of his service crew's trucks.

The team's hopes now rest with young Roman Kresta, who lost some time with gearbox problems early on, before gaining ground as his steady pace allowed him to benefit from the numerous retirements. Although he picked up road penalties when his team changed the gearbox in service and ran over its time limit, the Czech driver holds seventh overnight.

“I'm just trying to gain experience here, but it seems so many other people are having problems that we now have a chance of points,'' Kresta said, ''I'm not getting excited, though - we've seen how tough this rally is and that you cannot think about the finish yet.”

The sole remaining Hyundai Accent WRC3 was another to enjoy general reliability, although Juha Kankkunen's car did suffer two broken shock absorbers - both at the rear - during CS7. The team also elected to change the front differential at this morning's first service, after concerns about traces of metal found in oils taken from the unit yesterday, but had to work hard to get the four-times world champion back out of service within the allotted 20 minutes. The team then changed the car's turbo at this evening's final service, after it had completed the final competitive section with an intercooler that was blocked with mud.

Kankkunen entered today's action knowing that his team was desperate to gain further kilometres and experience of the Safari conditions. The veteran Finn duly obliged, adopting a steady pace that allowed for data gathering without risking terminal damage to the car. He suffered a late scare when he filled his car's intercooler with mud but still arrived back in Nairobi in eighth.

“I'm quite pleased that we're still going and still learning for the team,'' Kankkunen said, ''The aim here is to get kilometres so the team has plenty of data and learns about the Safari conditions. Our car isn't full Safari specification and we've had the odd problem, like the two broken rear shock absorbers in one section, but we're still going.”

Over at Mitsubishi, Alister McRae is hoping to maintain a steady pace and pick up places as others hit trouble. His policy paid off as he benefited from the retirements of Frederic Dor and Kenneth Eriksson to move towards the top ten and the later problems that claimed Mäkinen, Burns and Sainz moved the 1995 British champion into ninth by the end of the day.

“We've had no really major problems today and I've just been trying to find a reasonable speed that keeps us in touch and allows us reliability to take advantage when other guys have problems,'' the Scot revealed, ''We've made up a few places, although we'd have liked the second section to have run because we went well in there yesterday and more guys in front could have had dropped out. But we're still going and as we've seen so far, reliability's crucial here.”

Subaru's day turned sour early on, as Mäkinen lost time on the morning's opening section with suspension problems. The Finn felt that the rear of the car was behaving strangely even as he left service, and both rear dampers began to leak oil on the road to the competitive section. He had to slow accordingly, and then suffered a puncture and had to stop to change a wheel in CS7, before eventually being forced to retire when he broke a wishbone after 30km of CS8.

Mäkinen lost his overnight lead with his morning's problems, which the Subaru team is still investigating, and also incurred the wrath of Colin McRae, who felt that the Subaru driver had been too slow in moving over to allow him past in CS5.

“We must have hit something quite hard because very suddenly, the wishbone just broke completely,'' Makinen said of his retirement, ''There was no way we could continue with damage like that and so much of the section still to go, so we had to retire. I'm disappointed, of course, particularly since I thought we could get back towards the points, even after our problems this morning.”

Elsewhere, Marcos Ligato continues to lead the Group N category for more standard machinery, ahead of Japanese driver Toshihiro Arai. The event claimed leading privateer Frederic Dor this morning, however; the French shipping magnate retiring with a broken wishbone.




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