Reigning WRC champion Sébastien Ogier laid down the marker with the fastest time in Wednesday afternoon’s Safari Rally shakedown in the scenic Rift Valley floor in Naivasha, Kenya.
The Frenchman was in imperious form as the WRC made its comeback on African soil for the first time in 19 years when he timed 3:43.9 minutes on the 5.1 shakedown stages.
Kenyans will have their eyes on the Rai brothers Onkar and Tejveer, who set the fastest times for the local drivers.
Onkar was the fastest Kenyan in the shakedown at Loldia finishing the 5.1km stretch in 4:07.6 while his younger brother Tejveer was the second-fastest local driver timing 4:27.3.
The ARC Equator Rally champion Carl ‘Flash’ Tundo was third fastest returning best time of 4:27.5.
“I’m just getting warned up. It was incredible seeing the big boys get down to action. It is amazing how these top take off and take the corners. They are really aggressive. There is a lot to learn from these top drivers.
“I just want to have a good rest and be ready for the action on Thursday,” Tejveer Rai said.
Ogier, who is the FIA World Rally Championship leader edged Toyota Gazoo team-mate Elfyn Evans from Wales by a tenth of a second through the 5.15km Loldia run overlooking Lake Naivasha.
Thierry Neuville was a second further back in a Hyundai i20. The stage was representative of the punishing broken roads that competitors will face over the next few days and Dani Sordo was fastest out of the blocks to set quickest time in the opening run in his i20.
Ogier moved top of the standings in the second pass and lowered his benchmark time further in his fourth and final run. Evans and Neuville soared up the order in their last attempt to fill the top three places.
“It’s a massive challenge and we know we have a tough weekend ahead,” said Ogier.
“The biggest challenge for me will be to find a nice rhythm but there are some parts where we can push. So far, so good. “The recce went well and shakedown was quite representative so it gave us a chance to test a little bit and adjust the set-up for the rally. I feel ready, but are we really ready for this kind of rally? I’m not sure!”
Sordo improved his times with each run to claim fourth, 0.8sec behind team-mate Neuville.
Takamoto Katsuta, driving a Yaris, and Gus Greensmith, in a Ford Fiesta, filled the remaining places in the top six.
Neuville was third on the warm-up test Oliver Solberg received a harsh early reminder of the Safari’s brutal nature. The Swede hit a tree stump 3.1km into his first run and his i20 was brought to an early halt with broken front right suspension.
Also in trouble was Lorenzo Bertelli. After his first run was interrupted due to Solberg’s incident, the Italian completed two passes before his Fiesta stopped with a radiator leak in his fourth attempt.
1. Sébastien OGIER Toyota Yaris 03min 42.6sec
2. Elfyn EVANS Toyota Yaris +0.1sec
3. Thierry NEUVILLE Hyundai i20 +1.1sec
4. Dani SORDO Hyundai i20 +1.9sec
5. Takamoto KATSUTA Toyota Yaris +3.0sec
6 Gus GREENSMITH Ford Fiesta +3.1sec
7. Kalle ROVANPERÄ Toyota Yaris +3.5sec
8. Ott TÄNAK Hyundai i20 +4.6sec
9. Adrien FOURMAUX Ford Fiesta +7.4sec
10. Lorenzo BERTELLI Ford Fiesta +8.7sec
11. Rai ONKAR 4:12.6
12. Rai TEJVEER 4:27.3
13. Tundo CARL 4:27.5