Can a Safari stage really be too rough?

Following driver complaints about a stage on this year's event, our writers ponder how rough is too rough


There was utter indignation displayed by multiple World Rally Championship drivers as they drew up to the stop line of Safari Rally Kenya’s Malewa stage. They were unhappy with how rough it was and the potential puncture lottery it created.

As M-Sport’s Grégoire Munster arrived at the finish, he had a bone to pick with Safari’s short yet arduous stage: “I honestly hope they get rid of this stage for next year because it’s honestly a nightmare to drive and zero fun,” he said.

Toyota has had the most reliable car at the top level since the Safari made its return in 2021; every podium has featured at least two Yaris drivers in the past four years. But its drivers were similarly nonplussed by Malewa’s roughness.

“This is a lottery stage,” was Takamoto Katsuta’s evaluation. “Quite stupid, to be honest. You don’t know where the rocks are and it’s moving all the time after cars [pass]. It’s impossible to know where it is and it was on the line.”


Katsuta's not keen on boulder-strewn stages

Meanwhile, Kalle Rovanperä was in cruise mode, preserving his healthy Sunday lead. That meant he did not have the frustration of Munster or Katsuta – but his objective assessment summed it up nicely: “For sure it’s the most horrible conditions I’ve seen anywhere.”

Here’s the thing, though: if it’s a nightmare to drive and horrible conditions, doesn’t that mean Malewa should not only stay on the itinerary but the rally organizers should add some more stages of similar character? Is that not the point of being in Kenya?

David Evans and Alasdair Lindsay weigh up whether a Safari Rally Kenya stage can really be too rough.


Absolutely not. And Kenyan organizers take note here… bring back the rock gardens and make your rally rougher and tougher. Yes, I want to see cars flat-in-top, outrunning the heli, rocketing across the African wilderness at 120mph chased only by their own great rooster trail of dust.

But in the next frame I want to see them in first gear crawling across unimaginably rough terrain. The Safari, for me, is a test of both bravery and brains. The second part of that comes in the calculation and understanding of slow never quite being slow enough.

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 01-03 03 1997

McRae learned to tame the Safari, winning three times including in 1997

I remember a great Nicky Grist story from when he did his first Safari with Colin McRae in 1997. By the time he stepped aboard the Subaru alongside the Scot, Nick had a wealth of experience from testing in Africa with Toyota and he knew just how rough some of the roads could get.

But he was struggling to get that point across the McRae. Slow wasn’t slow enough.

So they introduced the word ‘Stop’ into their notes. When Colin heard that word, he got it.

They won that year, and the 1999 and 2002 events.

Now, I’m not advocating an African version of the mind-boggling King of the Hammers event, but I’m all-in for shots of cars inching up or down rocks. And don’t listen to folk who tell you they need to build Safari-specific cars to do that. They don’t.

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 27-01 04 1991

David Evans would like to see more of the kind of conditions Carlos Sainz faced in 1991

A good few years ago I was doing some Trophy Truck testing with Armin Schwarz in Nevada Desert. The truck was one of the most insane rides I ever took. But what was almost as impressive was when Armin and I drove the same road in a road-going Škoda Octavia Scout. Admittedly, we did it 100mph slower, but a European car with minimal suspension travel, an inch or two more ride height and some plastic wheel arches made it through.

It can be done. Rough it up.

David Evans


WRC cars over rougher stages can be done. After all, how many cars retired on Malewa? Zero – every single car in every single class that started the stage finished it, on both passes.

Can we turn the drivers into rock-climbers, tip-toeing through harsh bedrock at slow speed? Probably. Should we? Yes – but also, no.

Watching some of the onboards from Safari felt like being transported to the flat and fast gravel roads of South Kurzeme in Latvia, which we’ll be visiting in the WRC later this year; even watching from the cockpit of Oliver Solberg’s Rally2 car on Soysambu felt like being strapped to a rocket ship.

Martins Sesks

The WRC is well catered with fast gravel; Latvia's inclusion makes three events on this year's calendar

But this has a downside: we have enough fast gravel in the WRC already. Poland, Latvia, Finland…it’s enough. We don’t need more flat-out gravel. It is the contrast between traversing the vast open plains at triple-digit speed and rock-climbing at walking pace that transforms Safari from just another gravel rally to a unique, crown-jewel event that the WRC can use to market itself as a truly extreme sport.

But there’s a problem. With the WRC in its current state, we can’t afford for factory cars to break down. There aren’t enough of them. And that problem isn’t going to get fixed for at least two to three years, at best.

Think back to the final edition of the ‘old’ Safari in 2002. There were 19 factory cars plus another 11 privateers in top-class machinery. In total there were 48 cars – only 11 finished. Apply that finishing rate to this year’s field and how many cars would have reached the end of the rally? Somewhere between six and seven.

Richard Burns Story 1971-2005

Current-era WRC can't afford the 77% retirement rate Richard Burns was among in 2002

OK, we have super rally now so it would be a bit more. But can you image if at some point, so many cars were out on Saturday that only 10 cars across all classes passed through a stage? It would be an embarrassment.

Rough stages would be great. We should be pushing man and machine to the limit in ways that don’t involve raw speed. It’s a unique selling point the WRC can leverage that other motorsports no longer have; ask anyone involved in endurance racing and they’ll tell you Le Mans and Daytona are now 24-hour sprints.

So yes, we can have rougher stages. And ideally we should. But it would be a high-risk option with the championship in its current state. Sell the idea to manufacturers not currently in the WRC as a unique marketing tool, get them in the championship and then put more stages of Malewa’s ilk on the itinerary once they’re on the entry list.

Alasdair Lindsay