Neuville, driving a Hyundai i20, held a 5.1sec advantage over Kalle Rovanperä’s Toyota Yaris, but Kenya’s rugged roads showed they had lost none of their punishing power in the WRC’s 19-year absence.
Elfyn Evans, Dani Sordo, Oliver Solberg and Lorenzo Bertelli were all sidelined during the three rugged and sandy speed tests on the southern shore of Lake Naivasha. Championship leader Sébastien Ogier limped back to service after heavy time losses.
Neuville won the tight and twisty Chui Lodge and the blisteringly fast Kedong. Rovanperä spoiled the Belgian’s hopes of a clean sweep by topping the times in Oserian before the survivors returned for well-earned service in Naivasha.
Video: Safari Rally Keanya - Evans suffers early exit
“I didn't feel like I was pushing really hard, I just felt quite comfortable in the car and tried to be as efficient as I could,” explained Neuville, who still had time for an overshoot. “I was driving with quite a high ride height to try and protect the car, but the negative point of that is it’s quite easy to roll,”
Rovanperä was left breathless by the morning’s action. “It’s incredible! I’ve never driven on this type of stage before. There’s so much dust in the car I can’t breathe,” said the Finn, who punctured in Kedong.
Ott Tänak was 26.2sec off the lead in third in another i20. The Estonian’s cautious policy was clear to see: “The only target was not to damage the car,” he said.
Takamoto Katsuta was fourth in a Yaris. He stalled the engine in Chui Lodge and struggled to explain the difficulty of the stages. “It’s quite a….I don’t know, I just can’t find the words for it!” he said.
Ford Fiesta pair Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux were fifth and sixth, a minute further back. Greensmith broke an anti-roll bar in Kedong but neither were keen to attack as they saw the carnage around them.
Ogier’s Yaris shed an oil canister from the rear suspension of his Yaris in Kedong and he nursed the car through Oserian with no damping. He arrived in service 2min 11.9sec off the lead in seventh.
Second in the championship Evans was the first big gun to exit, 300 metres from the finish of Kedong.
“I was just coming to the end of a fast section, there was a stone that was sticking out more into the road than I had anticipated. Unfortunately, we clipped it with the front right wheel, and it was enough to break the suspension quite badly,” explained the Welshman.
Video: Safari Rally Kenya SS1
Sordo retired minutes later in the same test when his car oversteered sideways off the stage and ploughed through the vegetation before coming to rest in a ditch. The Spanish crew managed to get their i20 back to the roadside but their efforts were in vain.
Bertelli parked his Ford Fiesta on the road section after Kedong, while Oliver Solberg suffered suspension problems in Chui Lodge and despite working furiously to make repairs, the teenager stopped at the end of Oserian with shattered suspension and a damaged roll cage.
Behind Ogier, WRC3 leader Onker Rai, WRC2 driver Martin Prokop and Daniel Chwist completed the top 10.
• Full coverage from Safari Rally Kenya will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park.