By NATION Team
Safari champion Richard Burns and Robert Reid opened a 26.7 seconds lead over Spaniards Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya at the end of the first leg last night.
Kenyans Ian Duncan finished 8th overall and Jonathan Toroitich was 14th at the fourth competitive section of Hunters Lookout.
Under azure clear blue skies and hot sunshine, Burns, driving a Subaru Impreza, was impressive from the start. He recorded the highest average speed of the first leg at 139kph, at the Isinya Competitive Section. Road surface temperatures soared to 30 degrees celsius.
Burns took full advantage at Lenkil when Sainz eased off marginally to avoid punctures which dogged many top drivers in the 779km long first leg.
Third placed Colin McRae/Nicky Gristy were going strong despite their Ford Focus misfiring at low engine revs to set the third best time of the section.
Duncan/Dave Williamson in a Toyota Corolla had accumulated 3:11.49 hours as at the Lenkil stage.
Duncan incurred a major delay after smashing a wheel.
World champion Tommi Makinen finished fifth after he lost over 10 minutes in Isinya following a puncture. A radiator blade also broke but was replaced.
Seat's car debut was doing well with Harri Rovanpera and Piero Liatti in fifth and sixth. The Mitsubishi challenge was led by Omani Hamed Al Wahaibi in a Group N Carisma to finish in the top 10. But while Burns was enjoying, team mates Juha Kankkunen/(No 6) and Bruno Thiry (No 11) retired with Electronic Control Unit failure at Olooloitikosh.
Belgian Freddy Loix in a Mitsubishi Lancer Car (No 2) was airlifted to Nairobi Hospital after a nasty roll.
Doctors later ruled him out of danger. His navigator Sven Smeets escaped unhurt.
Toroitich and Mahesh Shah in a Toyota Celica GT4 (No 18) were lying 14th overall at Hunters Lookout with a time loss of 2:31.01.7 3.
Rob Hellier/Des-Page Morris (Mitsubishi Lancer No 23 was the third best placed Kenyan in 16th place with 2:34.12.
Phineas Kimathi/Abdul Sidi were leading the F2 category in a Hyundai Coupe at position 22 in 2:49.50.8. They were followed closely by Gregory Kibiti/George Mwangi in a similar car in 2:50.09.7.
Ugandan Emmanuel Katto navigated by Kenyan Peter Stone in a factory-prepared Subaru WRC (No 19) was in position 25 after having mechanical problems.
Thousands of Ugandans lined rally routes waving their national flag Katto but were disappointed when they learnt of the problems he was undergoing.
Jimmy Wahome/Tom Muriuki in a Subaru Impreza were 26th, Mark Tilbury/Bill Kirk in a Nissan Pulsar were 28th.
Earlier, world champion Juha Kankkunen was among the first casualties. Kankkunen and co- driver Juha Repo (Car No. 6) bowed out after their Subaru Impreza experienced electrical problems.
The Safari started at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre yesterday morning with an ecstatic send-off by rally fans.
President Moi flagged it off.
Most drivers were apprehensive of the blistering heat and the dusty conditions of the 2,650-kilometre race.
This year's event has attracted 61 entries.
First off the ramp was three-time World Rally champion and hot favourite for the top perch, Tommi Makinen. The 35-year-old Finnish is co-driven by Risto Mannisenmaki.
His car stalled 10 metres down the ramp but sputtered back to life on second try and took off.
The most thrilling moment came when Kenyan drivers Ian Duncan (No. 12) and Jonathan Toroitich (No. 18) took the stage. Duncan - the four-time Kenya national rally champion - was the last driver to be flagged off by the President.
In his brief speech, President Moi exhorted Kenyan youth to enhance their participation in the annual motor event.
Toroitich said he rescinded his decision to retire from rallying due to "insurmountable pressure from supporters".
Toroitich, who clinched a personal best - fifth position - in the 1997 Safari Rally, asked Kenyans not to stone the cars.
The three-leg event traverses areas where temperatures soar as high as 45 degrees celsius at this time of the year. They will also race in areas with altitudes as high as 3,000 metres. The cars are expected to cruise at speeds up to 240 kilometres per hour in some stages.
Rally cars left this morning at 4.00 am for the 1,500-km long second leg that has been billed as the giant killer leg.
The drivers will follow Naivasha highway up to Stem Hotel and turn left into a new tarmac section which takes them to Elementaita for the 66km competitive to Olengurone. The climb up the escarpment is rocky and full of blind hazards.
The cars will then head to Nyaru, Eldama Ravine and return via Naivasha-Nakuru highway to Morendat and Mbaruk.
They return to Kampi ya Moto for the final 66km competitive section Marigat.
The first car is expected back in Nairobi from 8 pm after 14 hours of non-stop driving.