Four-times FIA World Rally Champion Tommi M?kinen has claimed an early advantage on the eighth round of this year's series, the Safari Rally, which started in Kenya today.

The Finn and his navigator Kaj Lindstrom set fastest times on two of today's four competitive sections to arrive back at the overnight halt in Nairobi 16 seconds ahead of Ford driver Colin McRae.

That gap had been much larger, but the Scot fought back with a fastest time in the day's last stage to set up a close battle in the two days ahead.

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After a ceremonial start in Nairobi yesterday, during which the cars were flagged away by HRH Prince Edward, today's opening leg comprised four competitive sections in the Suswa region. As predicted, the notoriously rough and long Safari sections took their toll on the world's top rally drivers. Current championship leader Marcus Gr?nholm was the first main retirement after just 17 kilometres of the day's first test, while Armin Schwarz, Freddy Loix, Petter Solberg and Francois Delecour were among the other top names to join the retirements list.

At Subaru Tommi M?kinen's Impreza WRC2002 has been reliable today. His team-mate Petter Solberg lost time in the day's opening competitive section, when his clutch started slipping less than two kilometres after the start and he had to stop to effect repairs. The young Norwegian's day worsened further still when he had to stop to fix turbo and engine problems in the third competitive section. The engine subsequently expired in the day's last section.

Tommi M?kinen quickly got up to speed this morning by setting a very fast time on the day's opening competitive section. The Finn insisted that he was taking no risks, even though his time was more than two minutes quicker than some of his rivals who'd also reported no problems. The four-times world champion then increased his advantage in the day's third section, but then adopted too cautious an approach in CS4 and watched his overnight lead shrink to just 16 seconds.

M?kinen's team-mate Petter Solberg endured a difficult day, meanwhile. He had to stop to effect repairs on a slipping clutch in CS1, and then had to cope with the dust of two cars as he recovered. The Norwegian then lost more time with engine problems in CS3, then retired when the motor expired completely in the following test.

Tommi M?kinen said: "It's been a good day and we've had no problems at all with the car, but we lost a lot of time for no good reason in the last stage. We just didn't get information from our helicopter crew about what time Colin (McRae) was doing, so we kept the same speed and gave him back a lot of time. We'll have to push again tomorrow."

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin have been generally reliable today, although both Sainz and Martin had to stop for punctures (in CS3 and CS2 respectively). All three cars also suffered broken dampers in CS3.

Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin all started cautiously this morning, but McRae in particular raised his pace during the day as he kept leader Tommi M?kinen within reach. The Scot, twice a winner in Kenya, set a very fast time in the day's last section to close to within 16 seconds of the top spot overnight. Sainz felt he was too careful in CS2 and he lost some time as a result, and then the Spaniard had to stop and change a puncture in the very next section. He still holds third overnight, however. Martin felt a tyre fly off the rim in CS2 and the Estonian lost time as he stopped to change the wheel. He occupies sixth after his first full day of Safari competition.

Colin McRae said: "We've obviously found quite a good speed and the car's been pretty reliable, so we have to be reasonably happy. The time in the last stage surprised me, because I thought it was just a good clean run."

Marcus Gr?nholm became the first major retirement on the Safari Rally on this morning's opening competitive section. The Finn was barely 17 kilometres into the stage when his engine stopped suddenly and despite the best efforts of the world championship leader and his navigator Timo Rautiainen, they were unable to restart the car. The 206 WRCs of Harri Rovanper? and Richard Burns were more reliable, although both suffered broken right-front shock absorbers in CS3. Burns's breakage was the more spectacular, since it spat out fluid and kick-started a small fire that the world champion had to stop to extinguish. Gilles Panizzi lost more than 20 minutes on today's first section, when his car suffered rear suspension damage.

Both Harri Rovanper? and Richard Burns have adopted cautious strategies on today's opening leg. Rovanper? was the quicker of the pair throughout, keeping his 206 in the top six for much of the day. He ended the leg in fourth. Burns has been feeling unwell today and he also felt his pacenotes might be too cautious. The world champion lost time when a shock absorber exploded near the end of CS3 and he had to stop to put out a small fire as a result. He still ended the day in eighth, however. Marcus Gr?nholm, meanwhile, became the first major retirement on the event after his engine expired 17km into the day's opening section. The fourth 206 of Gilles Panizzi broke an anti-roll bar in today's opening section and the Frenchman lost 20 minutes when he stopped to change the offending part.

Marcus Gr?nholm said: "The engine problem was like flicking a mains switch - the revs just died and that was it. We tried everything - changing the ECU, changing plugs - but nothing seemed to work."

Harri Rovanper? said: "Maybe we'll have to push a little harder tomorrow, because the guys in front are pulling away quite a lot. But I'll make a decision after I've seen how the stage conditions are when we go over them in reverse direction."

Kenneth Eriksson's Skoda Octavia lost the tread block off its left-rear tyre on this morning's opening section, then the Swede felt that the front of the car went very soft in CS3. Toni Gardemeister complained of the opposite for much of today - the young Finn even suffered chest pains because the suspension in his car was too hard for the rocky surfaces. He suffered rear shock absorber and driveshaft problems in CS3, then retired with left-rear suspension failure in CS4. Roman Kresta's Octavia has been generally reliable, although the Czech driver did complain of softening shock absorbers as well.

The Octavia WRCs of Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson made strong starts to the event, and both were running in the top six after two stages (Eriksson held an early third overall). They both hit suspension and driveshaft problems in the afternoon, but Eriksson still holds fifth overnight. His younger team-mate retired from a top-10 placing with rear suspension failure in the day's final section. The third Octavia of Roman Kresta lies outside of the top 10 after a generally troublefree day in which the Czech driver tried to gain experience of the Kenyan roads.

Kenneth Eriksson said: "We started well but it's worrying that we're starting to get suspension and driveshaft problems because the roads aren't going to get any smoother. All we can do is keep a good pace and see what happens."

Sebastien Loeb lost time in today's opening section when he bent a front wishbone in his Citroen Xsara and had to drive 35km with an ill-handling car. Then his team-mate Thomas Radstrom broke his Xsara's steering in CS2 and had to compete more than 40km with no left-front wheel and navigator Denis Giraudet perched in the car's boot to act as counterbalance. Both Xsaras then hit rear shock absorber problems in CS3 and Loeb then suffered two rear punctures in CS4.

Sebastien Loeb bent a front wishbone in his Xsara and had to drive for 35km with poor handling in the day's first competitive section. He also pulled over to let Markko Martin and Petter Solberg past, losing a further minute and a half while he waited. But the young Frenchman holds a top-10 placing overnight. Team-mate Thomas Radstrom lost most of his time when he had to complete more than 40km on three wheels after steering failure. He dropped out of the top 10 as a result but, thank to other drivers' problems, finished the day in seventh.

Thomas Radstrom said: "Our shock absorbers have been too stiff for a lot of today's stages and we have to soften them for tomorrow."

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRCs of Alister McRae and Francois Delecour started today's opening leg reliably, but then both hit rear damper problems in the second competitive section. The Frenchman then retired on the road section shortly after CS3, when his car's engine expired. McRae suffered from a small brake pressure problem in the same stage, then broke a track control arm in the day's last test.

Francois Delecour lost time behind Juha Kankkunen's crippled Hyundai on the day's opening section - the Frenchman had to complete 30km behind the four-times world champion before he could inch past, and he felt he lost around two minutes in the process. He then ceded more time to his rivals with rear damper problems in CS2 and after the following test, his car's engine stopped on the road section and refused to re-start. Alister McRae started steadily this morning, then lost time in CS2 with a broken rear damper (a different problem to Delecour's). He recovered to set third fastest time in CS3 but he lost a large amount of time in the day's last stage when he had to stop to change a track control arm.

Alister McRae said: "It's quite disappointing to lose so much time so early in the event but then, we're already seeing that most people are having problems so if you can just get through, you stand a chance. The biggest frustration is that when we've had a clean run, the car's felt quite strong."

Hyundai has suffered a tough opening day on the first Safari for the Accent WRC3. Freddy Loix's car retired halfway through the day's opening section with a burnt-out clutch. Armin Schwarz suffered turbo problems on the same test and although he reached service, his car's engine stopped and refused to restart on the road to the following section. Juha Kankkunen lost time with a broken right-front shock absorber in this morning's opening section and a similar problem in CS3, but it generally performed reliably otherwise.

Hyundai lost two of its cars before the day's second competitive section this morning. Freddy Loix's car hit clutch problems halfway through CS1 and although the Belgian stopped to allow the unit to cool, too much damage had been done and the car could proceed no further. Armin Schwarz lost turbo boost in that same test and although the German reached the following service area, his car's engine stopped on the way to CS2 and it refused to restart. The Hyundai team attributed the problem to a broken alternator. Juha Kankkunen, meanwhile, lost time in today's opening section when he had to complete 60km of section and 20km of road section with a broken right-front shock absorber. His team had to effect major repairs at the following service, and he was five minutes late at the time control as a result. He ended the day outside the top 10.

Juha Kankkunen said: "This has been a typical difficult Safari day, really. We knew coming here that it would be tough because we didn't have a lot of testing and it's been as we expected."

The Kenyan roads have created havoc in the Group N category for more standard machinery. Marcos Ligato suffered a misfire and stopped three times in CS3 with electrical problems, but he still entered the day's last section nearly a minute clear of Toshihiro Arai. The Japanese driver's progress had been hampered by persistent shock absorber problems. Italain Alex Fiorio retired on the last CS.