Slippery conditions and rocky tracks have taken their toll on the world's top rally stars on the opening day of the eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Safari Rally.

Pre-event rain turned much of the African plains into mudbaths, although rocks and gulleys lay underneath the slime to catch out the unwary.

Finland's Tommi M?kinen has mastered the roads to best effect, and the Mitsubishi driver holds the overnight lead, but title rivals Colin McRae and Richard Burns both retired with mechanical problems ending McRae's hopes of a record-breaking 24th world rally victory. They weren't the only works crews to hit trouble - Peugeot lost both Didier Auriol and Marcus Gr?nholm, while Subaru also lost Toshihiro Arai.

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Typically, the WRC's most unpredictable event threw up a few surprises. Armin Schwarz brought joy to Skoda by leading after the first competitive section - it was the first time that the Czech manufacturer had ever led a world championship event. He dropped further down the order with punctures later in the afternoon, but with heavy rain still soaking the region conditions are likely to be treacherous on tomorrow's long second leg.

At Mitsubishi Tommi M?kinen smashed his windscreen on today's opening stage when he clouted a bird, and he had two punctures on the second section, but the Finn's Lancer Evolution has performed without major mechanical problems. Freddy Loix enjoyed a trouble-free day in his example until the third section, when he had to stop to repair damaged front suspension after a puncture.

M?kinen's biggest scare was when a bird smashed the top-left corner of his windscreen this morning. The Finn had to drive 15km with badly impaired vision before he could cruise to service. Even though he had two punctures in SS2, the four-times world champion grabbed the lead from Armin Schwarz by lunchtime service. Freddy Loix has maintained a cautious approach, but the Belgian still held a top ten position although he had to stop to fix his suspension.

Tommi Makinen said: "It was scary when we hit the bird, because the windscreen got a massive smash and bits of glass were even coming into the cabin. I don't know what kind of bird it was but it was bloody big. Otherwise it's going well - the new tyres from Michelin are working very well and they're allowing us to get the full performance from our car. We're using mousse and even when we had punctures in the second section, it didn't slow us down very much at all. I feel confident."

Over at Ford The Focus RS WRC01s of Carlos Sainz and Fran?ois Delecour have been reliable today, although the pair have struggled with punctures - Sainz suffered from one apiece in the first and second sections, while Delecour punctured in the second section. Colin McRae's car was reliable until he had to stop in SS3 to repair a steering problem. He then slid off the road shortly afterwards, and sustained terminal clutch damage getting back onto the road.

Colin McRae believed that he was driving with even more in hand than the cautious approach which brought him victory two years ago. But the Scot still posted top three times this morning to hold third position by lunchtime service. However, subsequent steering problems caused him to slide off the road and he damaged his clutch beyond repair shortly afterwards. Carlos Sainz lost time with punctures but the Spaniard still occupied second, while Fran?ois Delecour was very cautious on his first attempt at the Safari and lay on the fringes of the top ten accordingly.

Colin McRae said: "It's annoying because I hadn't been pushing any harder than before. The steering arm came out at the end and I managed to get it back in, but it had damaged the splines at the end and it wasn't in properly. Then we went off a few hundred metres from the finish, through a fence. We tried to get back on and made it to the end of the stage, but doing even that distance with the wheel jammed had burned out the clutch.."

Carlos Sainz added: "I'm a bit worried about the punctures but otherwise it has been going okay. The roads have been quite slippery but it's the same for everybody."

Meanwhile at Peugeot both Didier Auriol and Harri Rovanper? hit problems in this morning's first section. Auriol broke a front driveshaft, then had to stop to put out a small fire caused by two damaged pipes. He also lost his power steering as a result. Rovanper? damaged a rear suspension arm, allowing his rear wheels an extra 10cm of lateral movement. Auriol retired on today's final stage when he rolled and his car caught fire, while Gr?nholm suffered suspension damage and joined his team-mate on the early flight home.

All three Peugeot drivers have adopted cautious approaches today and despite early mechanical problems, Harri Rovanper? had moved into third overall by late afternoon. Didier Auriol and Marcus Gr?nholm both occupied points-scoring positions too, but Auriol lost his when he rolled in today's final section and his car caught fire. He retired on the spot. Gr?nholm in particular felt that he'd been too steady, while Rovanper? believes his car is too lowly-geared on the high-speed sections.

Harri Rovanpera said: "We were actually lucky on the first section because the suspension arm damage could have been worse. Our aim was to keep a steady speed and that's what we're doing."

Didier Auriol added: "It was raining very hard so I wound down the window to demist the windscreen. The wind was coming in, Denis (Giraudet) called a note but I didn't hear it because of the wind noise. The car went end over end in fifth gear, maybe two or three times, then rolled and landed on my side. There was a fire immediately and I had to wait for Denis to get out. I'm glad to get out okay because it was a big accident."

At Subaru Richard Burns was the first major retirement on the Safari, after he damaged a left-front damper 50km into today's opening competitive section. His car continued for another 10km before a part in the strut snapped and left him stranded. With 60km remaining, it would have been impossible for him to drag the front of the car on the road without causing terminal damage to the engine and transmission anyway. Petter Solberg's car suffered a broken damper in the third section, while Toshihiro Arai's Impreza has performed without problems until today's final stage, when a puncture caused suspension damage and forced him to retire.

Richard Burns retired from the Safari Rally after just 50km, making his chase to the top position of the Championship a little more difficult. Petter Solberg and Toshihiro Arai have concentrated on making steady progress, and the young Norwegian was satisfied to hold a top six position for much of the day, despite suspension problems in the third section. Arai himself admitted that he took the day's first section too slowly, and he then suffered two punctures in the section test. He retired on today's final stage with suspension damage after a puncture.

Richard Burns said: "I just can't believe it. I hit a bump, but it was no bigger a bump than we hit during testing. I felt the pressure in the damper dropping and then heard that corner rattling. There was no way we could have continued. I'm not sure how this leaves me in the championship - to be honest, I'm so disappointed that I haven't even thought about that."

Petter Solberg added: "I've been driving Safari-speed today. I hated the second section during the recce and it was just as bad today, but otherwise it's been going okay. I'm just trying not to make mistakes or damage the car. Richard has now offered to do spotter in the helicopter for me - I'm very grateful to him for that."

Finally at Skoda the two Skoda Octavia WRCs of Armin Schwarz and Bruno Thiry have been pretty reliable today. Schwarz's suspension went soft towards the end of the opening section (where he was fastest) and Thiry broke a left-rear shock absorber in the same test. The Belgian also damaged the front of his car with a heavy landing in SS2. Schwarz lost a lot of time, though, when he encountered two punctures at the same time in SS3. The third Octavia of Roman Kresta lost a wheel in today's third section and had to retire.

Armin Schwarz grabbed the lead on today's first section and made history - it was the first time that Skoda has ever led a World Championship rally. The German lost the lead to Tommi M?kinen on the high-speed section, but he remained a threat to the leaders until he suffered two punctures in SS3. Bruno Thiry was more cautious and the Belgian was in the lower regions of the top ten as a result.

Armin Schwarz said: "It was great to lead but I was only keeping the same pace that we had in testing. I intend to keep that speed and if the rest go quicker or slower then so be it. The punctures were really bad luck, though - to get two at the one time is really bad and then I thought we could get away with not changing the front one. Unfortunately, we had to stop again and change it too. We haven't got a gravel crew here so I'm having to talk to the helicopter a lot, because there's nothing worse than coming over a crest flat out to find that it's pure mud."

Bruno Thiry added: "I'm just pleased to have reached the end of the first stage - in three attempts on the Safari, I'd never managed that before! Now I can concentrate on just keeping a steady pace and trying to keep the car reliable. I've had a few shock absorber problems towards the end of stages, though, which makes it hard work, and I also had to stop to let Armin pass me after he'd changed his tyres in SS3."

Of the other teams Argentine driver Gabriel Pozzo has dominated the Group N category for more standard cars in his Mitsubishi Lancer. His closest rivals, Stig Blomqvist and Marcos Ligato, have both suffered badly from punctures, with former world champion Blomqvist having to stop twice to change wheels.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 41 cars (26 Group A + 15 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: Burns (GB), C.McRae (GB), Auriol (F), Gronholm (FIN), Arai (J) +8 other drivers

Today - Friday 20 July: Leg 1 started from Nairobi at 08h00 and covered 814.19km, including 351.76km on 4 competitive sections.

Tomorrow - Saturday 21 July: Leg 2 starts from Nairobi at 04h00 and covers 1327.81km, including 426.24km on 5 competitive sections. The first car is expected to arrive in Nairobi at 20h50.

Weather forecast: Overcast with possible rain.

Leg One - Stage summary:

SS1 Oltepesi (117.46km):
1. Schwarz (D) Skoda 55m 05s
2. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 55m 09s
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 55m 33s

SS2 Kajiado (49.95km):
1. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 24m 06s
1. Loix (B) Mitsubishi 24m 06s
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 24m 15s

Leaders after SS2:
1. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 19m 15s
2. Schwarz (D) Skoda 1h 19m 41s
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 19m 48s

SS3 Orien (112.52km):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 48m 40s
2. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 48m 57s
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 48m 58s

Leaders after SS3:
1. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 2h 08m 12s
2. Sainz (E) Ford 2h 10m 24s
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 2h 12m 48s

SS4 Maili Tisa (71.83km):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 35m 42s
2. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 36m 22s
3. P.Solberg (N) Subaru 36m 39s

Leaders after SS4:
1. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 2h 44m 34s
2. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 32s
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +5m 16s
4. P.Solberg (N) Subaru +7m 15s
5. Delecour (F) Ford +9m 20s
6. Schwarz (D) Skoda +14m 20s
7. Thiry (B) Skoda +19m 43s
8. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +27m 24s
9. Pozzo (RA) Mitsubishi +44m 23s
10. Cavenagh (EAK) Subaru +48m 03s