How Rovanperä rode the rocks to rule the Safari

Kalle Rovanperä was in dominant form on Safari Rally Kenya. Others fell foul of the African classic before bouncing back

Kalle Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen

In the end, the rain never came. But that didn’t impact on a third round of the championship that delivered storylines galore. There were deflations, fuel-related frustrations, strained relations and hard-fought celebrations. In short, it was a typical Safari Rally Kenya. Won by a Finn. Driving an Toyota.

Thursday & Friday

As the cars departed the south-bound side of the Nairobi Expressway, passing Kenya’s parliament building, heading for the Kenyatta International Convention Center, the sense of expectation and excitement went through the roof. And, for the avoidance of doubt, the roof is fairly high on this event.

The people, the passion, the place, it all just comes alive when the rally’s back in town. And it’s not in the capital city for long – the Nairobi locals have just Thursday afternoon to make the most of seeing their heroes on what remains Africa’s biggest motorsport event.

Retaining the start location is a laudable nod to arguably one of the most storied events in the half-century history of the world championship. The Safari itself has, of course, been around far longer than the WRC: the first crews were flagged away in 1953.

Fast forward 71 years and there’s no road to Uganda or Tanganyika – the modern-day incarnation is quite different. It’s thousands of miles shorter and done in three days. It might not pack the punch it once did, but the sense of anticipation was just the same in the center of the city.

And the move back to an Easter date only served to fuel that expectation. Late March usually heralds the arrival of Kenya’s rainy season and when the Safari gets wet, all bets are off. That unpredictability allied to a weather forecast that talked of heavy rain coming across the weekend was very much in focus among the crews.

But before they got to the mainstay of Friday’s action on the shores of Lake Naivasha, there was a typically vast crowd to be pleased at Kasarani.

Safari start

The start out of the Kenyatta Convention Center in the middle of Nairobi remains a historic highlight of the event

There’s nothing new about Rally2 drivers starring at superspecials, but this definitely wasn’t the way Samman Vohra wanted to be talked about following the three-mile loosener in the city’s suburbs. The Kenyan’s Škoda ran wide into a left-hander, got caught in the soft surface and rolled twice. Watching on and awaiting their turn, the WRC’s biggest stars made a mental note to add a degree more caution.

Thierry Neuville moved to eclipse the ignominy of his exclusion from last year’s event with fastest time; the Belgian was a tenth of a second faster than team-mate Ott Tänak as the cars returned to the main road and headed north.

After three years of near-total Toyota domination (the GR Yaris has filled eight of the nine podium places since 2021), Hyundai was hopeful of toppling the Japanese giant in Africa. A one-two after SS1 was a solid start. But everybody knew, it mattered little. Friday was where it was at.

And immediately, Kalle Rovanperä swept Neuville aside to move to the top of the leaderboard. The reigning world champion’s start position further back on a cleaner and slightly grippier surface helped, but this was also a Finn in search of redemption after he’d dropped the round two lead with a radiator-whacking spin in Sweden.

Not that the 23-year-old was too chuffed with his move to the top of the table. He emerged from Lolida with a grimace.

“I don’t want to say bad words,” he said. “It was horrible. So much understeer.”

One stage later and it was marginally better. Fastest again, he admitted the Kenyan compromise of needing to run the car higher to clear the rocks wasn’t ideal in the quick bits. “Fast corners,” he smiled, “are not so easy on this rally.”

And there were plenty of those. DirtFish’s George Donaldson was watching at the end of Kedong, the 19-miler that concluded the opening morning, and was left open mouthed at what he saw. “It was like Finland,” offered GD. “I was watching through a long, fast corner and the cars were absolutely flat-out, using all of the road. It was incredible. They can’t continue like this…”

Kalle could. He made service with a 15.5-second advantage over Esapekka Lappi. Hyundai’s Finn was also taking motivation from what now felt like a very distant Rally Sweden – having won in Umeå, he wanted more of the same on round three. What he didn’t want was a repeat of the multiple transmission failures which earned him the moniker ‘Mr Propshaft’ last year.

Tänak was just 1.3s down on EP after the first loop with Neuville the only driver to have been bitten by Friday morning. The #11 i20 had hit a bank and knocked the right-rear tire off the rim. Twenty seconds down in Geothermal, he was more concerned at damper damage caused by the flailing Pirelli. And then there was the shredded bodywork.

Lappi Safari hat
It exploded Esapekka Lappi

“I think we could take some dust in the next one,” he grimaced, staring at the rear of the car. Fearing the worst, he and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe donned their goggles and went in. Another half minute was shipped, dropping the pair to sixth overall.

The general feeling around Hyundai was one of positivity. The 48 seconds separating Neuville from Rovanperä was far from the end of the world on a rally with a reputation as fierce as this one. There was plenty more to come from this event – and even this day. Especially if the rain came.

Which it didn’t.

But the madness did. And it came wrapped in Hyundai blue. First to go was Lappi. Not far into the re-run Lolida, he parked the car up, got out and tried to get on the phone. For a while, the reason was a mystery. Comms between the service park and the African wilderness aren’t always easy. Eventually, word got through. Transmission.

Surely, not the propshaft? No. The gearbox. “It exploded,” was Lappi’s brief, but entirely clear description.

Hyundai’s technical director François-Xavier Demaison offered more, adding: “The casing exploded. We know the transmission is the weak point of this car. It’s not been developed and validated properly. Last year was the propshaft and now it’s the transmission.”

Tanak Safari

Tänak's early bath meant more explanations to the media about another disappointing Safari outing

What about the other two cars? Were they at risk? “Yes, for sure. It’s a risk. It’s really difficult to put a number on it, but it’s a risk. [All they can do is] drive at 80%, which is not what we want to do. We’ll have to compromise a bit the performance and not be 100% everywhere.”

One stage later and Hyundai’s day worsened again. Tänak was done too. Rounding a fast corner he was confronted by a rock of some significance. Sitting alongside Donaldson in the DirtFish Land Cruiser, the Estonian took up the story.

“I had to choose,” he said. “Hit the rock and see what happens or go off the road. It was no solution… The rock was big, not small, and hidden in a medium-fast corner. We hit the rock and it threw up to the bank.”

Suspension damage ruled them out for the remainder of the day. These are things you can expect from Safari; the rock was pulled from the ground by, probably, the previous car.

“This was my first gravel rally in the car and I was really looking forward to getting used to it. Unfortunately, it didn’t pay off.”

Evans03KEN24rk049 2

Evans in a familiar pose through the weekend...

Hyundai’s nightmare two stages delivered a Friday night 1-2-3 for Toyota. Rovanperä was masterful through the afternoon and unbeaten across the day’s six stages. Elfyn Evans edged Takamoto Katsuta aside for second place after a morning too steady for the Welshman’s own liking. He had, however, found more speed on the second pass of the stages and wasn’t out of the top three times second time through.

Neuville was the nearest non-Yaris runner, 6.5s down on Katsuta. M-Sport Ford drivers Adrien Fourmaux and Grégoire Munster rounded out the top six with Gus Greensmith seventh in the first Rally2 car. The Englishman’s fellow Škoda driver Oliver Solberg was the biggest WRC2 casualty with two punctures, stopping to change one of them.


And so to the longest day. The one with the Sleeping Warrior. Anybody who’s observed anything of this event’s return since 2021 will understand the significance of this stage. It’s where things happen. If the rain’s coming, it’s coming here. Nobody’s safe until they’re through here. Twice. And without waking the warrior.

Rovanperä had been the WRC’s very own warrior through Friday. As he nosed his Toyota north out of Naivasha bound for the event’s furthest away stages, what was the plan? With close on a minute’s lead over team-mate Evans, would Saturday be consolidation or further domination?

“Let’s see,” he said with a grin as he stepped from the car for a stretch before Soysambu. “The weather can be interesting today.”

What would be interesting if the rain came would be the evolution of the road, where dust turns to dirt. In Saturday’s opener, it was definitely still dusty.

“I lost a couple of seconds in the dust,” said the leader, emerging on the other side of the 18-miler. “It was not easy in there.”

For the first time, the #69 Toyota was beaten on a long Safari stage. Kalle was relaxed about it. His team-mate and pal Taka had taken the weekend opener (admittedly only by two-tenths from Lappi’s Hyundai), ensuring a Yaris remained in charge. Talking to Katsuta after his Soysambu run, it was hard to imagine he’d gone fastest. Or maybe it wasn’t.

“I couldn’t keep my eyes open,” he said. “The dust. I hate this fesh-fesh, I have a problem with my eyes.”

Esapekka Lappi

The absence of big rain, African rain, long rain or rain of any kind meant dust remained a problem throughout the event

Maybe not seeing the rocks, the jeopardy and the potential pitfalls was the best way to deal with them.

One man who saw and felt the rocks was Evans. He punctured the left-rear, stopped to change and tumbled from second to fifth, loosening Toyota’s grip on the podium places as Neuville moved up to third and within striking distance of Katsuta in second.

The resurgent Monte winner was fastest through Elmenteita to go into Sleeping Warrior just 4.8s behind Katsuta. Two years ago, he parked his i20 against a tree in this fearsome test. Not this time. This time he moved up a position – his upward shift on the leaderboard helped in no small part by a pair of punctures for his rival.

“Lottery,” said Katsuta after dropping a minute to Neuville. “Very lottery in there.”

He wasn’t wrong. Neuville’s verdict? “That was one hell of a stage…”

Kalle Rovanperä

A rare shot of the #69 Toyota heading in anything other than a straight line. Rovanperä's run through Sleeping Warrior was a masterclass

A muddy section from the start had given way to a quicker stretch littered with loose rocks and varying grip levels. One for the brave. Or the clean.

There were few braver and none cleaner than Rovanperä and co-driver Jonne Halttunen. If ever there was a stage which defined the Finns’ day, this was it. While everybody else floundered with punctures and issues, the champions sailed serenely through. OK, serenely might be a stretch, but Rovanperä made the driving look simple.

“It was about keeping it clean,” he said. “It was an incredibly tricky stage, but I tried to not stress the tires. I looked after them where I could and drove clean.”

While his rivals had fired bits of Pirelli in all directions through the morning, the boots on Kalle’s car’s four corners looked like they could probably do another loop. He was a man very much in control. That wouldn’t change through an afternoon where he kept the car in the middle of the road, but still managed to double his advantage. He was heading into Sunday with a two-minute cushion in his pursuit of a second Safari win in three years.

Behind him, all hell was about to break loose for Neuville. Not far into the afternoon, the Hyundai stopped. Then it was running. Then it stopped. Then it was in EV mode. Then it finished the second pass of Soysambu. Mirroring Evans’ southward slide earlier in the day, the Belgian dropped two and a half minutes as second became fifth.

When the door was opened at the finish, there was a slight shake of the head and a very fixed stare straight ahead. “I have nothing to say. I have absolutely nothing to say.”

The interview was parked.

Worse was to come as he dropped seven minutes on the next stage and another one minute on the final Saturday test. The issue sat with the car’s fuel system and was thought to be linked to under-hood temperatures – a consideration evidenced as Neuville worked on the snorkel system, added in the expectation of rain that never came.

Brimming the Hyundai’s tank at the refuel helped, but the main reason he contained the time loss through Sleeping Warrior 2 was running the car in ‘safe’ mode. It restricted power – and subsequent temperatures – and allowed for continued progress through the stage. By the time he reached service, Neuville was resigned, but resolute.

“We could do nothing,” he said. “But we keep on fighting.”

Adrien Fourmaux

Fourmaux was on sensational and flying form with a faultless drive in a fault-free Ford

The same could be said for his team-mates, Tänak and Lappi, both of whom returned under super rally rules. Tänak endured successive issues through the first four Saturday stages: the hood was coming up after it wasn’t closed properly on SS8; intercom problems on nine; a puncture and zebras on the road on 10; and a car full of dust after the slider in his side window came open and wouldn’t shut on SS11.

Problems done, he was back on the attack, just a second off fastest in Elmenteita 2 and then the scratch came in Sleeping Warrior – and by some margin as he took 10s out of everybody.

Lappi’s day was defined by four things: punctures, zebras and two birds. It was the bird strike that caused the biggest issue. He dropped 10 minutes nursing the car through, unable to see out of a shattered windshield.

Neuville out of the picture, Katsuta sat second on Saturday night, despite an electrical issue which robbed him of anti-lag in the final stage. He’d survived a tough day, two minutes down on Rovanperä, but a minute ahead of the now provisional podium-sitting Fourmaux. The Frenchman did a fine job, keeping the Puma on the straight and narrow and, a single puncture aside, enjoyed a near perfect day.

The same couldn’t be said for Evans, who stopped to change another puncture, which stymied his challenge for third and locked him into fourth. Neuville was fifth, albeit six minutes down on his main title rival. After what he’d admitted was one of his toughest days in the sport due to illness on Friday, Greensmith rallied through Saturday and delivered a superbly consistent drive to head WRC2 and sit sixth overall.

Halttunen Safari

Sunday might have been something of an anti-climax aboard the all-conquering Yaris, had it not been for Jonne's splendid facial hair


If ever there was the perfect day to showcase the new points system, this was it. From first to sixth, the gaps (measured in minutes) were: two; one; two; six; three. Granted, Rovanperä was never going to risk the win for bonus points in a season where he has little interest in the title. But what about everybody else?

Sunday was a new dawn and a new race. Who was going to roll the dice? Nobody on the podium. Predictably, the top three didn’t change. Instead, the big three to watch on Sunday would be Evans, Neuville and Tänak. Who was gambling what? Evans had a possible 10 points in the bank from Saturday, if he made the finish. Neuville had a provisional eight in his pocket. Tänak had a point to play with. As well as one to prove.

Ahead of the event, the Malewa stage had been earmarked as one to watch out for. It was rough. And only getting rougher. With the question of risk and reward at the forefront of his mind, Neuville took aim and fired his i20 down the road.

The Hyundai bucked and bounced over the rocks, but stayed true. And very, very fast. Five minutes and 57.3 seconds after he started the 5.17-mile stage, he wiped his brow and smiled thinly. “At one point I lost the rear,” he said. “I thought it was a puncture, but it wasn’t. I pushed on.”

2024KENYA_FD_ 131
I just hope my teeth stay in Ott Tanak

His time was unbeatable. His nearest rival? Tänak. The Estonian had flinched and blinked in the face of some of the bigger boulders.

“Even with nothing to play with,” he offered, “it doesn’t feel natural to push. I just hope my teeth stay in!”

Lappi was next up, even with a right-rear puncture, with Evans fourth and 10.8s down on Neuville. The Toyota man was on the back foot out of the gate.

“Clearly the guys don’t care about their cars or their tires,” he observed, dryly.

With service separating the two loops of three stages, there would be the chance of new rubber – or marginally less used rubber – for the rally’s last section and powerstage. But the fine line would just get finer as Sunday progressed.

Evans had to do something, he had to find a response. He did. Fastest on SS15, he halved the deficit to the Sunday leader. Then, on the first run through Hell’s Gate, the potential for a change of championship leader took a decisive turn. Neuville clattered a rock and the Hyundai’s right-rear suspension admitted defeat. He dropped 17.3s. Evans was quickest.

Midway through Sunday, just three-tenths of a second sat between fastest man Tänak and Evans. Thierry was a further 12 behind. Every stage was vital now, but Evans had to find something on the second shot at Malewa. He couldn’t. The Hyundais ahead let rip. Tänak moved clear at the front and Neuville arrived on Evans’s bumper.

Worse was to come for Evans in Oserian 2, the loop’s longest stage at 11 miles. Coming off the stage, he was clearly frustrated. He said nothing at the stop line, but later offered DirtFish an explanation. “We need to have a look at it,” he said. “I lost some power towards the end of the stage. There was something not quite right.”

He wasn’t about to expand. His hopes of smashing the big seven Sunday points had all but disappeared. He was 17.9s down on the stage and 25.9 off day leader Ott. The team later pointed out the Yaris had ingested more fesh-fesh than was good for it, starving the car of air and causing the power loss.

So, now, who was willing to gamble seven for 12? Bring on the powerstage. And bring on some vintage Neuville. In an absolute full send, he took the extra five by half a second from Tänak. It was wild. And astonishing.

Thierry Neuville

Neuville gave it everything on the final day of the Safari, landing 11 of the possible 12 points

Twenty-four hours earlier, Neuville’s Safari had been falling apart as he shipped minutes with that fuel issue. Sunday afternoon and he’s flying high. And all smiles – especially with an extended lead in the championship. Whether or not his rally was worthy of just a point fewer than the all-conquering Rovanperä is another question for another day.

Perspective on the points story will ebb and flow as the season rolls through. That Sunday was more exciting than it might have been is beyond doubt. That’s entertainment. For the purist, that’s papering over the cracks.

Certainly, having watched his rival pluck a result from nowhere, Kenya wasn’t about to change Evans’ mind. Sunday belonged to Hyundai. But the process of bouncing back from a troubled Friday-Saturday was helped in no small part by the fact that Rovanperä, Katsuta and Fourmaux were out of reach.

For Kalle, this was a champion’s drive. For Taka, a further demonstration of his ability in Africa and an entirely fitting performance so soon after the passing of his countryman and trailblazing Japanese WRC winner Kenjiro Shinozuka. ‘Lightning’ would certainly have approved.

A second podium in as many rallies further demonstrated Fourmaux’s growing speed and maturity – and further cemented his appreciation of competition in this part of the world. That love of Kenyan competition was felt through the field, with Greensmith also celebrating victory on his first WRC2 outing of 2024.

Africa remains a very special place to go rallying. Especially if you’re driving a Toyota. Still unbeaten.

Kalle Safari looking

Just a picture of Kalle Rovanperä looking to see if he can spot the competition...