I’ve been to enough zoos in the UK to know how big a giraffe is. But how big are they in comparison to a World Rally Car? An unusual question I must admit, but the World Rally Championship answered that one for me back in June.
Thierry Neuville probably didn’t want to be confronted with a giraffe in his path when he was pulling more gears on a straight stretch of Kenyan countryside, but this was the Safari Rally. You don’t go on a Safari without getting wonderfully close to the animal kingdom.
An entire generation of not just drivers, but also fans, had missed this wonderment. We’d been told the Safari was mesmerizing. We’d been told it was a rally like no other. And we didn’t not believe what we were told, but you don’t truly know until you experience it yourself.
I was just five years old when the WRC had last touched down in Africa and Colin McRae took a then record-breaking 25th career victory. Do I remember that? My brain tells me I do because I watched the 2002 WRC review DVD enough times as a child, but in reality… do I heck!
It’s not often in my job I’m afforded the chance to actually watch a WRC stage unfold, as part of DirtFish’s extensive coverage of the championship is publishing a report from every single stage of the season. I’m therefore checking timing screens and frantically typing while listening to the All Live service instead of simply watching it.
But I gave myself some moments of relaxation for the Safari. It did mean I had to play catch up as the stage intensified and was forced to work even faster to catch myself up, but it was worth it. It was worth it just to sit back and watch these incredible drivers in these incredible cars tackle those absolutely incredible stages.
And regardless of the majestic setting, the sporting contest that unfolded was epic too – and as brutal as any classic Safari of old was. In the first morning Elfyn Evans, Dani Sordo and Oliver Solberg all came unstuck with a variety of self-inflicted and more unfortunate incidents between them, while erstwhile leader Kalle Rovanperä was swallowed by the notorious fesh-fesh dust on the final stage of the day too.
Just when the drama looked to have settled on the second leg, the heavens opened and turned the leaderboard on its head on Saturday’s final stage as several overshot junctions and Ott Tänak lost the use of his wipers at a critical moment.
But that was nothing compared to what Sunday had in store. Comfortably 57.4 seconds clear of the rest, Thierry Neuville must’ve been confident he was going to win. We certainly were. Nope.
Hyundai’s suspension curse – which seemed to have the structural rigidity of a bag of Quavers at points in the season – struck again and robbed Neuville of his first win with Martijn Wydaeghe.
Takamoto Katsuta then briefly led a rally for the first time in his WRC career before the inevitable happened: Sébastien Ogier was crowned the winner. How he must’ve craved that success knowing he may not have had a chance again to add Safari to his insane collection.
I’m relieved that the Safari didn’t disappoint. I did harbor some quiet fears that it might lack the same spirit as it once did, but it was just as unique and wonderful as anything I’ve ever watched back. Now just to get my flights booked and my feet on African soil for real!
Safari then was unquestionably the highlight, but shout-out to Rally Finland in the fall (wow it looked stunning), Rovanperä becoming a WRC winner and to Croatia – the surprise of the season. And not just because of that drama-filled final day, the rally itself was an instant classic too. Dare I say it, far more interesting than Ypres… and I never expected to say that earlier this year.
I’ve enjoyed watching the rapid rise of the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National series too. It’s never a championship I paid too much attention to before working for DirtFish if I’m brutally honest, but how wrong was I? How wrong were we all? Far more rally fans – and, crucially, drivers – from across the world are waking up to the wonders of US rallying and it’s certainly showing.
I also can’t write to a brief like this and not mention my first ever rally either. Words still fail me with this one. How did it happen? How did I get so fortunate? Thanks to Graham Coffey for the spin around Oulton Park – it was more than a dream come true because I never dared tease myself to think that it would ever happen for me.
But now I have, now that I’ve felt the buzz of lining up in the queue for stage one, I want more of it. If you’re on the look-out for a new co-driver, you know where to find me…
Not permanently though! I’m incredibly privileged to be working for the biggest player in rallying media, and 2022 is just going to be a step above as the WRC makes a giant step into the unknown.
Perhaps that’s my real season highlight. I’ve not been given the sack, and we all get to do this again in just a matter of weeks.