Safari Rally Kenya finally returns to the World Rally Championship, and rather significantly every single one of the factory World Rally Cars will be going there.
Previous editions of the rally rarely managed to attract all of the manufacturer entries, and the cost and logistics challenge has been harder than ever this year due to the pandemic and the pricey quarantine procedures everyone has to commit to in order to attend the rally.
It’s also a gravel rally that teams have done no representative testing for, with rough European roads used to simulate the stresses of the Kenyan countryside, so the competitive order will be a complete unknown despite two recent gravel rallies that have established clearly who’s fastest and who’s the most reliable on the loose stuff.
But how are the drivers, all making their Safari debuts, faring so far in the run-up to round six of the season?
#1 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st, 3rd, 1st
Last 3 gravel results: 1st, 3rd, 3rd
As if extending his points lead on Rally Italy last time out wasn’t impressive enough as the first driver on the road, the fact that he actually won the rally made for an even more memorable performance. He’s rarely been the fastest on gravel since joining Toyota last year, but Ogier made the most of his Yaris WRC when he needed to to bring in the points, especially when sweeping the stages.
The inconsistency of the stage surfaces on the Safari means his road position will sometimes be of no disadvantage at all on a stage, then giving him hell a few 100 meters later, but a driver with as much experience as Ogier will be better placed to try these new roads at competitive speed for the first time than his rivals. Particularly as he can afford to pull back with his current points advantage.
#2 Oliver Solberg/Aaron Johnston (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 11th, 7th, Ret
Last 3 gravel results: 11th, 18th (10th), 9th (1st)
Having no rally experience when it comes to driving a World Rally Car on gravel isn’t ideal preparation for Solberg, who has raced a Subaru WRX STI success in the USA, but he will have his father Petter giving him all the advice he can about Kenya’s roads and how to shed speed on grassy – but rocky – roads without also shedding time to the opposition.
Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo just wants Solberg to enjoy himself, but confidence and therefore happiness usually come after speed in a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC now so aerodynamically complex, so Solberg will have to push himself to make this a fruitful learning experience at the top level.
And the last time he was on high-speed gravel roads he did alright, coming ninth overall and winning the Rally2 class of Rally Estonia last year with some startling stage times.
#6 Dani Sordo/Borja Rozada (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 17th, 2nd, 5th
Last 3 gravel results: 17th, 2nd, 1st
After failing to become a three-time winner of Rally Italy a few weeks ago, Sordo will be looking to make amends both to Hyundai Motorsport team principal Andrea Adamo and himself. In his lengthy career he’s never rallied in Africa, but like Ogier he tackled the stinging roads of Rally Jordan and its punishing rocks twice and finished second on his first attempt at that event.
The Safari should have bedrock that’s a little more moist than that of the Middle East, but it really is that old experience Sordo will be looking to as his recent part-time programs with Hyundai means he hasn’t had much variety with his gravel experience in the i20 WRC.
Some of the Safari roads will be faster than Rally Finland, a rally he last did in 2017, and he was last exposed to Turkey’s tyre-destroying stages two years ago. Having new co-driver Borja Rozada alongside him will also make that older experience harder to translate.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 24th, 21st, 4th
Last 3 gravel results: 24th, 21st, 1st
Of the two new gravel rallies to be introduced to the WRC in the last decade, Tänak has been the winner of both. He conquered Rally Chile in 2019, then wowed his fans on Estonia’s roads last year.
He returned to his home country later on in 2020 to win Kehala Rally, meaning he does have some results to speak of from his recent gravel experience. As despite being the fastest driver in Portugal and Italy, he finished outside the top 20 as his i20 Coupe WRC didn’t take kindly to the rough roads.
This event is expected to be more challenging on the car than both of those, so expect Tänak’s pace advantage to not be so blindingly potent. He know when he needs to slow down to win rallies, but does his team boss Adamo know when to tell him to go even slower to protect a car recently prone to retirement?
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd, 36th, 3rd
Last 3 gravel results: 3rd, 36th, 2nd
Neuville has won three asphalt rallies this year, none of which were part of the WRC, and has been just as consistent on gravel with a run of podiums.
His relationship with new-for-2021 driver Martin Wydaeghe continues to improve, so much so that it almost feels like this combination is overdue a first WRC win together, and Wydaeghe’s pacenote writing ability – as well as his delivery – will really be put to the test this weekend given the only advance information teams have had are videos from the event organizer and this Monday’s recce.
Even on the seemingly simple straights, crews were frequently stopping to check for hidden rocks and other dangers. If Wydaeghe misses any of those in his notes, the #11 Hyundai will pay the price.
While Neuville may have a lower average finishing position this year than several drivers below him in the WRC standings, none of those have been able to reach the podium while he has been third on four of the five rallies held so far. Odds on he’ll be on course for a similar result on the Safari.
#16 Adrien Fourmaux/Renaud Jamoul (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 30th (20th), 6th, 5th
Last 3 gravel results: 30th (20th), 6th, 5th
Of the WRC rookies, Fourmaux should have the advantage over Solberg here having contested Rally Portugal in the Ford Fiesta WRC before jumping back into the Rally2 car for Italy.
The Frenchman also appeared pretty confident after Safari recce too, and confirmed he’s already had some zebra sightings, but the 26-year-old will have to be even more cautious than most given M-Sport is running with the minimum number of staff, several of whom won’t be working solely on his car.
But being extra cautious throughout may make him a dark horse for a podium, given he’s already proved his pace on his top-level gravel debut in the WRC, and despite his team-mate’s recent misfortune the Fiesta has actually looked to be one of the more robust cars.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Daniel Barritt (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th, 4th, 6th
Last 3 gravel results: 4th, 4th, Ret
The turnaround from rolling out of last year’s Rally Italy to finishing fourth on this year’s edition of the event sums up the progress that Katsuta has made at Toyota, and team principal Jari-Matti Latvala wants him to continue his current strategy of biding his time and letting the results come to him.
There have been stages where Katsuta has been the fastest Toyota driver on merit, but the emphasis has been on continually improving his patience on the stages because the rewards are clear to see. And being one of the drivers scoring manufacturer points for the brand come 2022 is one of the opportunities dangling ahead of him.
That the last two events have been on gravel, and Katsuta has taken his two best WRC results, bodes very well for this weekend.
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd, 1st. 2nd
Last 3 gravel results: 2nd, 1st, 4th
Outside of the Acropolis and Safari, the one rally that has recently got a reputation of being a proper car-breaker is Turkey, and it’s where Evans showed his title credentials last year.
He hasn’t finished outside of the top four on a gravel rally since joining Toyota, and in his final year at M-Sport the worst result he had on the loose stuff was fifth, so he’s certainly in form on this surface. The lack of snow even made Rally Sweden a gravel rally in 2020, and he won that event.
Evans’ methodical approach has put him right into the title fight again, with an average finishing position this year of 2.4. The next best is Ogier on 5.2. Pre-event he’s said that pacenotes will be a huge factor on hitting the ground running or hitting the ground with a wheel-destroying thud on Safari Rally, and expect him to be getting those calculations right once again.
#44 Gus Greensmith/Chris Patterson (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 26th, 5th, 7th
Last 3 gravel results: 26th, 5th, 25th
The momentum of Greensmith’s 2021 wasn’t entirely shattered in Italy with numerous car issues limiting him to a pointless finish through no fault of his own, as with stand-in co-driver Stuart Loudon he still learned a lot as a driver and built confidence with the Fiesta WRC on gravel.
Having Chris Patterson back in alongside him for Kenya is something he’s looking forward to, although remarkably in Patterson’s two-decade career he never did the Safari. He does however a huge amount of wins on gravel and did the Acropolis and Cyprus rallies for many years. Of all the co-drivers in the top class, Patterson would be the man to have this weekend.
As mentioned with Fourmaux, M-Sport is running as tight a ship as possible due to the logistical challenges, so Greensmith can’t afford to fall out of his recent confident run and destroy a car. As his team boss Richard Millener has said, this event will be all about gaining experience for 2022 and there is no pressure for a high-scoring result.
#37 Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin (Ford Fiesta WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 51st, 13th, 20th
Last 3 gravel results: 13th, 1st, DNF
The 33-year-old makes his second WRC appearance of the year on the most adventurous rally of them all, and does so in the same chassis he campaigned in 2019.
While he won’t be challenging anyone on pace, by staying out of trouble he could become the first Italian to score points in the driving seat in the WRC since his own 10th place on Rally Australia back in 2016. Matching his eighth place from Rally Mexico that season would be a good aim.
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Last 3 WRC results: 25th, 22nd, DNF
Last 3 gravel results: 25th, 22nd, DNF
A sensational start to the season, a dip, and then mysteries upon mysteries for Rovanperä this year. The 20-year-old now has 14 rallies in a World Rally Car under his belt, 12 of those in the WRC, meaning he now has the equivalent of a full season of experience at this level.
Going from leading the points to now being the lowest placed Toyota driver in the standings in the space of three rallies hasn’t done his confidence any good, just as his Yaris WRC has also escaped his ideal spot at times and had little-explained technical issues. But the Safari could be a big reset for him like it was to his father Harri whose series breakthrough came on this rally in 1998.
Watch out for the flying Finn, who is a driver with nothing to lose right now whether he goes flat out or opts for caution as he needs to find any way to put a strong result on the board again.