Two-time world champion Rovanpera, making the second start of a partial WRC campaign, managed to tame an at times ill-handling GR Yaris to open up a 15.5s lead over Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi.

Ott Tanak headed to midday service in third [+16.8s] ahead of Toyota pair Takamoto Katsuta [+41.3s] and Elfyn Evans [+43.1s]with Neuville sixth [+48.0s] after a tire drama. The top eight was completed by M-Sport Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux [+1m14.6s] and Gregoire Munster [+2m23.8s.].

Hot and dry conditions kicked off Friday’s leg and while the weather was stable the majority of Rally1 drivers struggled to find the balance in their cars on the rough gravel in stage two [Loldia, 191.7km].

Rovanpera was among those particularly unhappy with his car, but the Finn was able to win the stage despite a left-rear tire coming off the rim at the stage end. The world champion emerged from the dust 0.9s faster than Hyundai’s Lappi.

“I don’t want to say any really bad words, but it was horrible,” said Rovanpera, who moved into a 1.4s overall lead over Tanak. “The car is understeering so much, I don’t understand how we can do any time on this stage. “We need to improve.”

Lappi also suffered from understeer in his i20 N and was joined by team-mates Tanak and Neuville, who were also not best pleased with the handling of their cars.

“Genuinely low grip, somehow really struggling. It is very hard at the moment, the car is not working at all,” said Tanak, who was third fastest.

Overnight leader Neuville said the stage was a “reminder of how hard” the event will be, as he dropped 2.6s.

His title rival Evans found himself going to be much worse as the Welshman, struggling for balance, clocked a time 11.8s adrift of the pace. The Toyota driver did however suffer a slow puncture.

Fourmaux was seventh fastest in the first of the M-Sport Ford Pumas ahead of team-mate Gregoire Munster.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Austral / Hyundai Motorsport

The brutal nature of the Safari Rally was felt in stage three [Geothermal, 13.12km]. Championship leader Neuville clipped some loose rocks on the side of the road which resulted in a right-rear puncture.

Neuville dropped 19.9s and slipped to fifth overall, but he fared much better than WRC2 runner Oliver Solberg who was forced to change a wheel a kilometer into the test and lost 3m32s.

The stage was topped by Rovanpera despite the Finn claiming that his car’s set up remained sub-optimal. He was 1.4s faster than Lappi, extending his overall rally lead over his countryman to 3.0s.

Tanak was third fastest ahead of Katsuta and Evans, the latter still struggling with the balance of his GR Yaris.

The mighty Kedong [31.50km] stage, run in a reverse direction this year, completed the morning and it was here where Rovanpera delivered a drive that stunned his rivals.

Rovanpera produced a blister effort through the high-speed undulating test to clock a time 11.1s faster than nearest rival Tanak. The time pushed his lead out to 15.5s over Lappi.

“This stage has been really nice every year. For sure I want to commit and even with the new notes,” said Rovanpera.

Lappi was 1.4s slower than Hyundai team-mate Tanak but there was more drama for the i20 N, driven by Neuville. The effects of the impact and resulting puncture in the previous test disabled his hybrid unit. The flailing rubber also ripped a chunk of bodywork from the right rear meaning dust was creeping into the car, enough for Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe to don goggles.

Neuville ceded 26.3s slipping to sixth overall, 4.9s behind Evans, while Fourmaux and Munster completed the top eight having opted for cautious drives to avoid the many hazards to sit in seventh.

An under the weather Gus Greensmith emerged from the loop with a sizeable 2m20.1s WRC2 lead after main rival Solberg suffered a second puncture of the morning in stage four.

“What the hell can you do? Crazy high pressures. You take it easy in the rocky section and you still get a slow puncture. Without WRC tires it’s no fun. From now on it’s flat out,” said a frustrated Solberg, who dropped to sixth in class.

The crews will tackle a second pass through the loop of stages this afternoon.

Watch: Safari Rally Kenya Thursday highlights

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