Takamoto Katsuta isn’t usually one for big statements, so it was quite a surprise to hear him say something so bold.
“I have never had this kind of feeling,” he began. “I don’t want to drive this stage anymore actually! It’s too bad.”
Katsuta had just arrived at the end of the fourth stage of this year’s Safari Rally Kenya, and what he’d just experienced wasn’t tickling his fancy. Rally drivers love driving, but Katsuta wasn’t feeling it. Kedong was an absolutely brutal stage that was simply to be survived, not attacked.
Sleeping Warrior was the stage that completely overturned last year’s Safari Rally, and although that may yet prove to be the case this season too, Kedong has certainly bitten the World Rally Championship’s finest talent – and machinery – hard.
Over the two passes, only two of the 12 Rally drivers – Elfyn Evans and Adrien Fourmaux – can claim to have got through it without any drama. And Fourmaux retired before the second pass.
“Actually altogether the day has not been so tough because two stages out of three are quite nice roads and in good shape, so it was actually quite enjoyable just to drive,” 2019 world champion Ott Tänak told DirtFish.
“The last stage, for sure, the first part, the first 20 kilometers actually, was quite rocky, rough surface. It was really difficult to avoid all the sharp stones to keep the tires going.
“And then the last part in the fesh-fesh, we are more driving under the sand than staying on top of it.
“It was quite some job.”
Think of the Safari Rally and the images that likely immediately come to the forefront of your mind are of cars tip-toeing over rocky passes or plunging into thick puddles of mud.
Kedong offered both, but with a twist. Rally1 cars weren’t wading through puddles but plunging into thick layers of sand instead – specifically fesh-fesh sand. As Tänak put it, they were “driving under the sand”.
And that, naturally, took its toll.
Thierry Neuville gave up 54.6 seconds on the first pass, his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 unable to surpass the 50mph mark. This was no random failure, though. Kedong had provided a trigger.
“I was losing power,” he said. “We carried on, in the sandy part it got worse and in the end we had no power at all. My air filter box came loose and obviously all the sand went in.”
If a driver or car had a weakness, Kedong was going to expose and punish it.
Oliver Solberg encountered the same problem as Neuville and lost even more time, while Tänak and Sébastien Loeb both got momentarily lost when their vision was obscured from dust they had kicked up themselves around a hairpin.
Gus Greensmith was next on the casualty list. The rear-right delaminated and he trudged on, only to elect to stop close to the end of the stage with the bodywork severely destroyed where the remaining rubber had been slapping it and tearing it to shreds.
“Obviously, in hindsight I should have stopped earlier, but when I was forced to stop, there was stuff I had to repair before I could put another wheel on which cost us a lot of time so…” Greensmith reflected.
The carnage was so severe that not one single Rally1 driver drove out of the stage in the same overall position that they had started it. Championship leader Kalle Rovanperä climbed five spots on the leaderboard – not how running first on the road on a gravel rally usually plays out.
Craig Breen summed it up best: “Incredibly difficult. I can’t imagine what the second pass will be like!”
Those words would come back to haunt him, as Breen’s rally capitulated when he returned to Kedong five hours later.
First Breen punctured, and then a component in his M-Sport Ford’s steering gave way, pitching him off the road and into retirement.
Neuville’s mechanical problem had hurt him the first time round and come the afternoon, dust became his foe.
It infiltrated the cockpit of his i20 N Rally1 around halfway through the stage, reprofiling his face with a dust mustache and leaving him coughing. Once again, Neuville was forced to display his majestic powers of resilience to make it through – his tire leaving the rim late on the stage to boot.
Nor was there mercy for rally leader Sébastien Ogier. Two minutes were lost, and his rally lead, after parking his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 up early on the stage to change a rear-left puncture.
“With 10 kilometers to go I had to stop as the last fesh-fesh section, it would not be possible to go through on three wheels.”
It’s that combination of the sharp rocky sections and deceptive fesh-fesh stretches that made Kedong such a beast. Even in Safari spec, Rally1 cars are ultimately designed to go from A to B as quickly as possible but what they were being asked to deal with on this stage was more akin to the Dakar Rally.
Challenging, yet rewarding. But was it too challenging?
“I mean it’s just, it’s an amazing rally. The character of it is just not like anything else in the world championship,” offered M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson.
But it wasn’t all praise. Kedong had left Wilson a tad frustrated. A sign of a stage to be feared if there ever was one.
“I think the fesh-fesh is spoiling it a little bit to be honest because you can see what’s happened to a lot of the cars, but I suppose if all the rallies were the same you wouldn’t get the adventure you get here.”
And that’s precisely why Kedong was such a brilliant spectacle for the WRC.
Evans – the only driver to complete the stage twice and not have any issues on either occasion – basically decided his best route to success was by going slowly, expecting a “car graveyard” on the second pass. Where else would that be a smart strategy?
But, much like the entire WRC season at the minute, Kedong belonged to another Toyota. The one currently with #69 stuck on the front door, but surely set to be wearing #1 in 2023.
Rovanperä won both passes of the stage, using the second run to vault from fourth place into the rally lead.
In amongst all the madness, there was at least one element of familiarity.