Rovanpera heads Toyota 1-2-3 on WRC Safari Rally after Friday charge

Kalle Rovanpera (above) dominated Friday’s opening leg of the WRC Safari Rally Kenya to build a 56.9s lead on a near-perfect day for the factory Toyota Gazoo Racing squad.

The two-time and reigning WRC champ is recharging his batteries by running only a limited FIA World Rally Championship in 2024, but was untouchable on his second start of the season as he and co-driver Jonne Halttunen romped to fastest times on all six of Friday’s rough, rock-strewn gravel stages around Lake Naivasha.

Rovanpera’s teammates, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta, made it a GR Yaris Rally1 1-2-3, the Japanese marque capitalizing on what turned into a disastrous afternoon for WRC rivals Hyundai Motorsport after two of its three factory aces, Esapekka Lappi and Ott Tanak, were forced to retire.


Lappi, winner last time out on the snow and ice of Sweden, had been fellow Finn Rovanpera’s nearest challenger at the day’s midpoint, but a transmission failure sidelined his i20 N Rally1 car in the first stage after service, Loldia 2. That elevated Tanak to second until his similar machine stopped in the following test, Geothermal 2, with broken steering after hitting a rock.

Evans and Katsuta were on hand to pick up the pieces and complete Toyota’s preliminary podium lockout, the duo split by just 3.9s after Evans moved ahead in the final stage of the day, the 19.57-mile Kedong 2.

Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta (above) held second for much of Friday, but lost the spot to teammate Elfyn Evans on the final test.

“I have to be happy with that,” said Rovanpera at the end of the leg. “For sure, on the last one the conditions were quite rough, and I think from every car [the ruts] get a bit deeper in places. I didn’t take any risks and I was going around all the stones to try and keep the car in one piece. I would have loved to go even faster, but at this point this is OK!”

WRC points leader Thierry Neuville became Hyundai’s only remaining hope after Lappi and Tanak’s demise, although the Belgian encountered troubles himself with a tire failure in the day’s second stage. The flailing Pirelli rubber punched a hole in his Hyundai’s bodywork, forcing the Belgian and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to don goggles and dust masks for the final stage of the morning.

A more positive afternoon saw fourth-placed Neuville edge closer to a podium position. Beaten only by Rovanpera in Kedong 2, he trails Katsuta by just 6.5s heading into Saturday’s penultimate leg.

Fourth-placed Thierry Neuville (above) is Hyundai’s only bullet in the gun after a rough day for his teammates.

M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux had to contend with his Puma Rally1 surfing on its sump guard in some of the rougher sections, but he coped well to hold fifth after a relatively clean day. The Frenchman ended the leg almost two minutes back from the lead, with teammate Gregoire Munster – contesting his first Safari in Rally1 machinery – a similar distance behind.

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Gus Greensmith led by more than three minutes despite experiencing flu-like symptoms throughout Friday.

With WRC2 competitors choosing a maximum of seven events to score points on, Skoda Fabia RS driver Greensmith waited until Kenya’s third round to kick off his 2024 campaign, and despite feeling less than 100 percent , things couldn’t have gone much better for the Brit.

Having opened up a slender advantage early on Friday morning, things were made a little easier for Greensmith when his nearest challenger, Oliver Solberg in a similar Fabia RS, stopped to change a wheel in the day’s second stage.

With Solberg dropping back and the rest of the field not posing any major threat, Greensmith could afford to manage his risk level on the rugged African stages. After ending the day 3m23.0s clear of second-placed Kajetan Kajetanicz’s Skoda, he was simply looking forward to getting some rest.

“This afternoon has been the toughest afternoon I’ve ever had in rallying,” Greensmith said. “I’m absolutely exhausted. I need a bed – and soon!”

Gus Greensmith battled flu-like symptons, but still built a significant WRC2 lead in his Skoda.

Saturday’s second of three legs is the longest day of the rally and features six stages totaling 100 competitive miles. Up first is the 18.22-mile Soysambu test, followed by 9.37-mile Elementeita and the iconic, 22.42-mile Sleeping Warrior stage. All three are repeated in the afternoon loop.

WRC Safari Rally Kenya, positions after Leg One, SS7
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 1h16m22.6s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +56.9s
3 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m00.8s
4 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +1m07.3s
5 Adrien Fourmaux/Alexandre Coria (Ford Puma Rally1) +1m46.6s
6 Gregoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1) +3m34.2s
7 Gus Greensmith/Jonas Anedrsson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2 leader) +6m51.3s
8 Jordan Serderidis/Frederic Miclotte (Ford Puma Rally1) +9m11.7s
9 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +10m14.3s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Skoda Fabia RS – WRC2) +10m28.8s

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Story originally appeared on Racer