Four-times FIA World Rally Champion Tommi Mäkinen 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.
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 Grönholm 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 Mäkinen'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 Mäkinen 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.
Mäkinen'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 Mäkinen 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.