NAIROBI, June 23 (Xinhua) -- WRC Safari Rally got off to a dramatic start that saw 2021 champion Sebastien Ogier of France kick off his title defense in style by clocking the fastest time here on Thursday.
Ogier, who is contesting a partial program with Toyota Gazoo Racing this season, edged off Hyundai Motorsport star Thierry Neuville by just five tenths of a second in the curtain-raising two-at-a-time Super Special Kasarani on the edge of the capital.
"I came back for the people. It's very colorful here and the people in this country give us amazing support," Ogier told the WRC Promoter after his scintillating run in front of a roaring crowd.
Estonian Ott Tanak rounded off the podium, only 0.5 seconds down on his Hyundai i20 N team-mate.
However, it was an afternoon to forget for Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC championship leader, Finn Kalle Rovanpera, who slumped to 11th overall as the brutal nature of the African motor racing classic came to the fore yet again.
Rovanpera, whose father Harri finished second in the WRC Safari Rally in 2002, the last year it was a global event before 2021, was fortunate not to roll his GR Yaris during the special stage.
"I was a bit on the limit under braking. Nothing really happened, but we had a puncture. That was a big shame, but it's a long rally and we will try to focus on the week ahead now," said the Finn star who was the quickest in Wednesday's shakedown in Naivasha, a resort town in the northwest of the capital, Nairobi.
Ogier, who snatched a dramatic victory in 2021 when the Safari returned to the WRC following an 18-year absence, returned to Kenya after falling in love with Africa's landscapes and culture.
Britain's Elfyn Evans was 1.2 seconds slower than Ogier and took fourth, with nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who went head-to-head against Ogier, another 0.5 seconds behind in an M-Sport Ford Puma.
Toyota hotshot and last year's runner-up Takamoto Katsuta completed the top six just one-tenth further down.
Karan Patel, in a WRC Category 2 Ford Fiesta, was the highest placed local driver in 16th having clocked 3:39.5 in the special stage.