Safari Rally Kenya is round six of this year’s World Rally Championship. But it’s round three of the captivating B-plot of the season: the two dominant forces of rallying in the last two decades competing head-to-head once more. Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier are back for another duel.
Loeb and Ogier fought tooth and nail in a thrilling Monte Carlo Rally, Loeb usurping Ogier as the latter’s Toyota suffered a puncture on the penultimate stage. In Portugal, neither driver’s event really got going, with Loeb making an uncharacteristic error and crashing out of the lead. Meanwhile, a double puncture for Ogier ended all hopes of a good result before the first leg was even complete.
Now it’s time for a do-over. They get to battle once more. But which is most likely to triumph in Kenya?
Loeb has the edge
Round two of the Loeb v Ogier battle within a battle didn’t really kick off, did it? This one has more potential though.
Ultimately, I don’t think this week’s Safari Rally Kenya is going to be decided on pure pace. Last year showed, even in a shortened form, that Africa’s not a place for flat-chat rallying. That being the case, I honestly think Sébastien Loeb or Sébastien Ogier could win.
Who would I go for?
I’m going with Loeb. I know the common sense option would probably be Ogier, what with his more recent experience and win last season, but Loeb just has that canny knack of reading and running a rally like this.
Look at his last rough gravel outing in Turkey, 2020. He finished third.
What? What’s that I hear you say? That was two years ago… Yeah, you’re right. Loeb’s not the sort of driver who can take a break from an event, then come back and win. It’s not like he skipped the 2021 Monte, then came back and won this year.
OK, I’m being a bit flippant here, but one thing is sure: Loeb’s Dakar experience will come to the fore in Kenya more than anywhere else in this year’s WRC. It’s about understanding the pace, measuring it and being comfortable driving at seven or eight-tenths to bring the car to the end of a stage.
Loeb has no end of experience and he’ll be putting it to the very best of use this week.
Recent experience and a score to settle give Ogier a boost
Betting against Loeb is always a brave choice; 2022 perhaps proves that better than any other season. But occasionally I’m a brave man, so I’m sticking my dollar on Ogier.
There’s not much in rallying that can be new for a nine-time world champion with 80 career victories, but Safari Rally Kenya is just that for Loeb. Yes, he was there in a Citröen Xsara WRC – and scored a deeply impressive fifth overall given his lack of experience at the time – but that was 20 years ago. And the rally’s changed a lot since then.
Ogier has no such concerns. He too has done just one Safari but it was last year, in the modern guise. And, of course, he won it.
Ogier simply needs this result more than Loeb does too. I don’t for one minute want to question Loeb’s motivation but Ogier’s must surely be stronger. He isn’t flirting with the WRC to finish second or off the podium – he’s here to win and so far he hasn’t done so in a hybrid Rally1 car.
He’s not a driver to chase records, but it’s a pride thing. Ogier will be giving every ounce of his being to make it happen on a rally he fell in love with last year, and with a Friday starting position of ninth (two behind Loeb), he’s in the perfect place to attack it.
Either way, it’s great to have the two Sébs back again. If Rovanperä shows no sign of slipping up, the Loeb vs Ogier may just save this WRC season for the neutral.
This is about more than Loeb vs Ogier
I have to be honest. I don’t care which of Loeb or Ogier wins round three of their semi-retired legends duel. Not really.
I’m hoping for only one thing: that they both beat Kalle Rovanperä.
Nothing against Kalle. He’s a thoroughly decent lad. But I want a title fight. And both Loeb and Ogier can help make that happen by sandwiching themselves between Rovanperä and the chasing Hyundais of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak.
OK, addressing the question. Based on how Rally Portugal played out it’s hard to look past Loeb as the favorite in that duo. Despite the less favorable road position he was simply faster than Ogier, who was all at sea and struggling to get his head around why he couldn’t get the GR Yaris working to his liking on the Friday morning loop.
And in Italy, both Breen and Loubet clearly showed the potential of the Ford Puma on gravel. Yes, neither had been in the lead fight – but Breen made multiple small errors on Friday that set him back and Loubet is in career rebuild mode. The signs are there that the Puma might be as good as – or dare I say it, perhaps even have the edge on – the Toyota on slower, rougher gravel stages.
Consider also that Loeb is spending more time this year driving on the loose stuff. Between testing and racing in World Rally-Raid, plus his Extreme E outings, the effects of hopping in and out of a rally car have the potential to be less jarring than the swap Ogier is about to make from a high-downforce Le Mans prototype on asphalt. When you’ve got two enormously capable drivers in two rapid cars, the small things can make a difference.
So yes, Loeb to edge it over Ogier is my bet. But both to lord it over Rovanperä, please – I’d like a drivers’ title fight to follow once the two legends check out for an extended summer break.