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26.06.2021 Kenya

Neuville weathers Kenyan storm and 'black cotton' as Ogier closes gap

Thierry Neuville steered his way through the stormy conditions to retain his Safari Rally lead as he chases a first season win.  By TONY KARUMBA (AFP)
LISTEN JUN 26, 2021
Thierry Neuville steered his way through the stormy conditions to retain his Safari Rally lead as he chases a first season win. By TONY KARUMBA (AFP)

Thierry Neuville weathered a huge storm Saturday in his Hyundai to retain pole position on day two of the Safari Rally in Kenya but was looking over his shoulder as French seven-time world champ Sebastien Ogier closed the gap to stand third 1min 15 sec adrift.

Neuville mastered the conditions as he all but trebled his overall advantage over Toyota's Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta to 57sec.

But it was Ogier who had cause to feel he had put in a good day's work as he moved into third having gone into the afternoon in seventh spot.

"I had to take risks as I knew Ogier had set off 12 minutes ahead of me and so he therefore had a drier track," explained Neuville.

The morning passed off peacefully enough after Friday's thrills and spills had seen the likes of Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Kalle Rovanpera and Dani Sordo all endure a range of setbacks on unforgiving terrain outside Nairobi, welcoming the WRC show back after a two-decade absence.

But the heavens opened for a decidedly slippery special stage 13, dubbed "Sleeping Warrior," near Lake Elmenteita, which saw Neuville and Ogier respond to the challenge better notably than Ott Tanak.

The Estonian Hyundai driver conceded the third place he had held overnight after having to stop mid-stage to fix his wipers as his windscreen misted over, a situation made worse with what locals dub the gritty "black cotton" thrown up by the sandy terrain.

The treacherous conditions, coupled with his technical woes, saw Tanak drop down to fourth as he lost two minutes to fall 65.7sec behind Ogier, who currently has an 11-point lead in the season standings over Evans with Neuville, chasing a first season win in Kenya, 22 points further back.

"It was dreadful as at the start of the special, when the rain started to fall, I couldn't see anything at all. Then things improved," said Ogier as he found the 13th stage brought him the luck that deserted Tanak.

Friday had seen the French veteran, in his last full season on the WRC circuit, endure a particularly bumpy ride as he battled back from a broken rear suspension.

Katsuta concurred with Ogier on the visibility problems.

"It was terrible -- I couldn't see -- but I'm still here," smiled the 28-year-old from Nagoya.

"At one stage I braked 200 metres from a bend but my car didn't want to turn," he said as the "black cotton" did its worst.

Wildlife posed a further challenge as giraffes and zebras meandered onto parts of the track forcing several drivers, including Neuville and provisionally sixth-placed Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux in his M-Sport Fiesta, to slam on the brakes on several occasions to avoid a collision.

Polish uber-veteran, 91-year-old Sobieslaw Zasada, by far the oldest racer in championship history, meanwhile stood 27th in the 32-strong field in his Ford Fiesta against competitors some of whom are young enough to be his grandchildren.

Sunday brings a further five special stages over 50 km of timed sections.

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