Probably the most iconic name in the history of rallying made its return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) last week, after a 19 year hiatus, the Kenya Safari Rally (known by many as the East African Safari Rally). For all the top teams it was the first time they would face the WRC’s most challenging event.
The official start in Nairobi was followed by a short super special stage before an overnight halt. The stage was a clean sweep for Toyota, Sebastien Ogier with co-driver Julien Ingrassia taking the honours from teammates Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen and Elfyn Evans with co-driver Scott Martin.
Day 2 and a difficult start for the Toyota outfit as championship leaders, Ogier and Evans, would once again be “sweeping” the road. It was a great day for the Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT when Thierry Neuville and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe began to stamp their authority on the event, winning three of the days 7 special stages.
His teammate Ott Tanak and co-driver Martin Järveoja was on the pace and consistently in the top six of the field. The i20’s were challenged by the Yaris of Rovanpera who was snapping at the heels of Neuville and went on to win 2 stages.
A surprise challenger was the ever improving Takamoto Katsuta and co-driver Daniel Barritt in the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris, the 28 year old Japanese driver was to hold second overall at the end of day 1, just 18.8 seconds behind the day’s winner Neuville.
Running fourth, Evans hit a large rock on stage 3 putting the Yaris off the road and out for the day. Ogier suffered a broken rear shock absorber reservoir early in the day and was forced to crawl through several stages dropping him to 8th.
Dani Sordo was another casualty of stage 3 when he destroyed a suspension arm on his Hyundai and had to withdraw for the day. Rovanperas’ Yaris became stuck in deep sand on the penultimate stage of the day and was towed out, dropping him to seventh overnight.
The M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta’s of Gus Greensmith with co-driver Chris Patterson and Adrien Fourmaux with Renaud Jamoul took a cautious but successful approach finishing fifth and six at the end of day.
The Safari was living up to its reputation with almost half the front runners experiencing serious problems on day 2 but the third leg proved a little more forgiving.
Neuville increased his lead over Katsuta as a revitalised Ogier began to close the gap, the Belgian took the first stage of the day (SS8) followed by three in a row for Ogier, but a sudden downpour in the final stage of the day, the 31.04 km Sleeping Warrior caused chaos.
Those dry and dusty roads rapidly became mud, most competitors were using the Pirelli hard compound tyres which only provided minimum grip in the appalling conditions. Katsuta lost time after sliding off the road and was coming under pressure from Tanak, but the Estonian had an issue with his windscreen demister which failed allowing the screen to mist up forcing the crew to stop and wipe it clean costing over a minute. Tanak dropped to fourth position.
Ogier managed to stay out of trouble in the rain and moved into third just 18.1 seconds behind Katsuta. But it was a measured drive from Neuville who increased his lead to almost a minute, ready for the final leg on Sunday.
It looked as though Neuville would finally take his first win for the 2021 season but the Safari had other ideas, as on the first stage of the day the Belgian crew hit a rock destroying their right rear suspension and ending their rally hopes.
Katsuta moved into the lead and held it until the penultimate stage when Ogier moved ahead to take victory by 21.8 seconds from Katsuta and Tanak in third, Fourmaux was placed fourth until a stewards enquiry deemed that he had driven too far off the course when cutting a corner on Stage 14 on Sunday morning, resulting in a 10 second penalty. This dropped the Frenchman to fifth and moved team mate Greensmith into fourth, the two separated by just 0.1 second.
The Safari Rally made a successful return to the WRC calendar and was well summed up by Sebastien Ogier saying, “It’s been an amazing experience to be here. The support we got from the local people was incredible. It might be a bit shorter than the old days, but the challenge is still very tough.”
- S. Ogier/J.Ingrassia Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
- T.Katsuta/D.Barritt Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
- O.Tanak/M.Jarveoja Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT i20
- G. Greensmith/C.Patterson M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta
- A. Fourmaux/R. Jamoul M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta
- K.Rovanperä/J. Halttunen Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
- E. Evans/S. Martin Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Yaris
FIA World Rally Championship Drivers (after round 6 of 12)
- S.Ogier 133
- E.Evans 99
- T.Neuville 77
- O.Tanak 69
- T.Katsuta 66
- K.Rovanpera 56
FIA World Rally Championship Manufacturers (after round 6 of 12)
- Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT 273
- Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT 214
- M-Sport Ford WRT 109