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Makinen leads the Safari Raly after leg one.

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 Mäkinen 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 Grönholm, while Subaru also lost Toshihiro Arai.

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 Mäkinen 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.

Mäkinen'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 François 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 François Delecour was very cautious on his first attempt at the Safari and lay on the fringes of the top ten accordingly.



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