Drama strikes Neuville, Rovanpera firmly in control

Reigning world champion Rovanpera was one of the few to avoid punctures or mechanical issues to complete the day’s six stages with a 2m08.9s lead over Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta, with M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux third [+3m13.3s].

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The trio will bank 18-15-13 championship points respectively under the new-for-2024 scoring system if they finish the rally tomorrow.

Toyota’s Elfyn Evans started the day in second but dropped to fifth after picking up two punctures across the morning. The Welshman climbed to fourth when a fuel system issue stuck title rival Neuville, which dropped the Hyundai from second to fifth.

Evans ended the day in fourth [+5m35.6s] to bag a provisional 10 points, despite suffering another two punctures. Neuville nursed his car through in fifth [+11m48.6s] to scoop a provisional eight points, while top WRC2 runner Gus Greensmith held sixth overall [15m02.0s].

Forecast rain for the afternoon prompted Hyundai to fit its snorkel for the first time this weekend, joining Toyota and M-Sport-Ford, who have run their Safari-spec intakes throughout the rally.

It didn’t have to work too hard in the first stage of the loop [Soysambu, 29.32km], which was bone dry but full of the hazardous fesh-fesh sand.

Dust was however an issue for Hyundai’s Ott Tanak, who rejoined the rally on Saturday after crashing out on Friday’s stage six. A broken side window made conditions in the cabin particularly challenging as dust found its way inside. Tanak also revealed that he was carrying another yet to be defined issue.   

Team-mate Esapekka Lappi navigated through the stage fifth fastest, but Hyundai’s Safari Rally misfortune continued when Neuville slowed. The Belgian appeared to be battling a fuel system problem that required two stoppages in the stage. Neuville eventually engaged EV mode to reach the stage end, having slumped from second to fifth overall and dropping 2m38.7s in the process.

“I have absolutely nothing to say,” said a frustrated Neuville.

Thierry Neuville, Hyundai World Rally Team

Thierry Neuville, Hyundai World Rally Team

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

After working on the car, he was able to fire up the engine and head to the next stage.

Katsuta pipped team-mate Evans by 2.6s to win the stage, inheriting second overall following Neuville’s drama. Rovanpera was third fastest, but the Finn actually extended his rally lead to 2m20.2s.

Likewise, M-Sport’s Fourmaux climbed into the podium places in third as the Frenchman continued his sensible approach to the rally.

Neuville’s engine issue continued into stage 12 [Elmenteita, 15.08km] despite starting the stage seemingly with full power engaged. However, he ground to a halt in the stage before finding a way to refire the car to reach the stage end, albeit down on power. Despite dropping more than seven minutes, he held onto fifth overall.

The stage was claimed by Evans who pipped Tanak by a second, the latter having solved the dust issue that hampered him on the previous test.

Evans’ first stage win of the event to date was chalked up with a front-left puncture on his GR Yaris. Fourmaux extended his strong showing by recording a third fastest time, 2.9s slower than Evans.

“I’m feeling good. You know the movie with Ricky Bobby, Talladega Nights? Shake and bake baby,” said a happy Fourmaux.  

Rally leader Rovanpera was again untroubled. The Finn was able to adopt a measured approach given his sizeable lead over Katsuta. 

The expected heavy rain showers failed to arrive for the day’s final test [Sleeping Warrior, 36.08km] but it didn’t dampen the drama on show.

Lappi’s run of bad luck continued after striking two birds in separate incidents that smashed his i20 N’s windscreen, reducing him to a crawl.  

«[I have] just some glass in my eyes. On one straight we hit a big bird then later on we hit a second bird. Two different places,” said Lappi, who pulled over to let Tanak through.

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Team-mate Neuville fared slightly better nursing his wounded i20 N to the finish, dropping 59.9s, but he crucially held on to fifth overall.

However, his nearest championship rival Evans also lost time to a fourth puncture of the day when his left rear let go towards the end of the test, causing a 2m19.3s deficit.

It wasn’t the only tyre problem on the stage as third-placed Fourmaux encountered his first issue of the rally. The Frenchman’s front-left tyre exploded, but luckily it only resulted in a 39.7s time loss.

«It’s our first issue since the beginning, so statistically it’s okay. The lines were pushing me out and there was a rock. At one point the tyre just exploded,” said Fourmaux.

Tanak won the stage by 10.0s from Katsuta with Rovanpera, without hybrid power, third fastest. 

The crews will tackle six more stages on Sunday to conclude this year’s Safari Rally.

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