Sébastien Ogier is curious to see which World Rally Championship drivers will “accept” the need to fight their natural instincts and go a little slower to be faster on this week’s Safari Rally Kenya.
The Safari returned to the WRC calendar last year after a 18-year hiatus, and although it was shorter in length than it once was it was no less of a challenge.
Ogier eventually won the rally but had to battle through a rear suspension issue on the opening day before rising to the front on the final day when runaway leader Thierry Neuville retired.
Safari therefore remains a rally that is won via the head rather than the right foot – an approach Ogier plans to replicate this year on his third start of what is a partial WRC campaign.
But the reigning world champion is equally interested to see what tactics his opposition goes for.
“We always say that before the start, it’s a rally where you need to use your head, adapt your rhythm, but always when we put the helmet on you’re never happy to lose 20, 30 seconds per stages and try to be safe,” Ogier told DirtFish.
“I’m interested to see who is really going to accept to do that and have the strong mind to accept the situation, because it might pay off over the weekend but we will see.
“It’s the kind of rally where if you want to place some money on an outsider you can do it because like I say it’s an unpredictable rally.”
Fellow multiple world champion Sébastien Loeb is equally aware of the challenges that lie ahead, having made one previous Safari Rally start in 2002.
“If you push too hard you will break something,” Loeb said to DirtFish.
“In some places it’s quite tricky so it will be important to find a good rhythm without losing too much time but without destroying everything, so I don’t know how to manage that!
“We will see.”
Takamoto Katsuta made the cautious strategy work for him last year as he finished a career-best second on the rally.
“Of course the strategy is just to keep the OK pace, not full, full throttle but you need to manage the car without punctures and without problems, but obviously sometimes it’s not possible because you need to go through the big, massive steps and things.” the 2021 runner-up explained to DirtFish.
“The team is preparing very well so I just trust them and I need to see how it’s going each stage compared to other drivers. Definitely if you start to overpush this means that you never get to the finish, so I just need to find the balance – especially with this car.
“This car is a new car and we all never know what’s going to happen.”
Kalle Rovanperä admitted to DirtFish his healthy 55-point championship lead would affect his approach “a little bit”, but the Toyota driver added “this is also an event where you would have the same plan starting a bit more back from the championship”.
“You need to get through it otherwise you don’t get any points,” he said. “But yeah, it seems that here you need to push a lot in some sections where it’s good conditions and then some sections you just need to get through it without issues.
“So I think the plan is anyway the same. Try to do [the stages] quickly without any issues.”
Not everybody is so convinced that the slowly, slowly, catchy monkey approach is necessary though. M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith thinks the experience garnered last year means “it will still be pretty flat out” this weekend.
“The stages look smooth in some places but a bit rougher in others, so I think it’s more clear cut the places you can go faster than the places you can’t compared to last year,” was his take.
“So some places will be a bit stop and go, get the car stopped to look after it, but then again I think we all have quite a lot of experience and we were all surprised by how quick we could go last year. So it will still be pretty flat out.”
And Toyota’s Elfyn Evans is in agreement.
Asked by DirtFish if he has a different approach for the Safari compared to other events, Evans said: “To a point. We’re still competitors at the end of the day, we still need to drive at some sort of speed, we’re still in a competition.
“So it’s about striking that balance between looking after the car and being somewhat competitive, let’s say.”