FIA World Rally Championship leader Thierry Neuville took a slender 0.1-second lead over his Hyundai team-mate Ott Tänak after winning Safari Rally Kenya’s opening stage on Thursday.

Thousands of passionate fans were vying for every possible vantage point as this 71st edition of the iconic Safari Rally got underway in the suburbs of Kenya’s capital. It followed a glittering ceremonial start in downtown Nairobi which was attended by President William Ruto and his Cabinet Secretary for Sports Ababu Namwamba. FIA Vice President for Sport Africa Rodrigo Rocha, FIA Secretary General for Sport Valerio Iachizzi and KMSF Chairman Maina Muturi were among the guests.

Neuville, who carries a three-point championship lead into this round, edged his i20 N partner Tänak by a single tenth over the 4.84km opener, while reigning champion Kalle Rovanperä completed the top three just 0.7s further back.

Having recorded two non-finishes in Kenya from three previous attempts, Neuville is well aware that the going will get tougher from Friday onwards.

“It will be a challenging event,” Neuville affirmed. “Our fingers are crossed that, this time, we can get through without any technical problems or mistakes. I think we are well prepared, and I am feeling good in the car, so it’s always good to start a rally like this.”

Africa has been home to two of Takamoto Katsuta’s four WRC podiums. Driving a Toyota GR Yaris identical to Rovanperä’s, he dropped just 0.9s whilst posting the fourth-best time ahead of Hyundai rival Esapekka Lappi.

Elfyn Evans, currently second in the points, went sixth-quickest in his Toyota with M-Sport Ford Puma youngster Adrien Fourmaux following closely behind. Gus Greensmith set the pace in WRC2, taking eighth overall in a Škoda Fabia RS, while Grégoire Munster and Oliver Solberg completed the top 10.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony, FIA Vice-President for Sport Africa Rodrigo Rocha highlighted that “the Safari Rally, that is truly cherished by our President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, brings a very unique touch to this championship. Kenya, with its special sand, fesh-fesh and iconic Masai spirit is a perfect setting for a true African Rally experience.”

The action resumes at 08:15 local time on Friday morning with the first of the day’s six stages. The biggest challenge will be the 31.50km Kedong stage, which makes up the finale of the morning and afternoon loops.