World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier has admitted he’s conflicted over the idea of the World Rally Championship visiting Africa for Safari Rally Kenya because of wildlife and economic factors.
The Safari has been absent from the WRC schedule since 2002 but was supposed to return in 2020 until the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
While Africa has had to wait an extra year for the WRC to return to the continent, the 2021 Safari Rally Kenya has been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in recent memory with fans and drivers alike encouraged to see what lies ahead.
But Ogier – who heads into the weekend with an 11-point championship advantage over Elfyn Evans – has admitted he has “mixed emotions” ahead of the rally.
“There is some positives such as the enthusiasm from the locals, a very warm welcome that we got, everyone is excited to see that.
I’m not sure how to feel about the fact we are in the middle of animals that I want to protect and don’t want to disturbSébastien Ogier
“But on the other hand, in my mind and in my heart I’m not sure how to feel about the fact we are in the middle of animals that I want to protect and don’t want to disturb,” he explained.
“And on the economy part, this is a country that is definitely still poor with high poverty and we can ask ourself if the budget is best spent or could be better spent than on the race?
“Of course I love my job, I love to be here but I am a bit confused if it’s the right thing to do in the middle of nature and make a race in there.
“But here we are and we’re going to do our best to stay out of trouble. The organizers are going to a lot of effort to keep the animals away and hopefully they will succeed.”
Toyota team-mate Evans is more excited to be competing in Africa, seeing this weekend’s challenge as “a great opportunity”.
He said: “It’s brilliant. It’s a really great adventure for all the crew, I think, honestly. It’s really good that the WRC is here in Africa and in Kenya. It’s really good.
“First time for me really in Africa was in the north before, but I was only five years old, so it’s a completely new experience and I’m really happy to be here.”
There was widespread agreement with Ogier though that the increased volume of stage-side animals could pose a challenge.
Asked if he was concerned about wildlife appearing on the road, Hyundai’s Ott Tänak said: “During the recce they [the animals] were not so bad.
“On some open areas, yes, but I guess they’re also not big fans of the noise and the cars passing, so hopefully they stay away.”
His team-mate Thierry Neuville added: “We have met a lot of deers in the stages [during recce] so it’s going to be an additional factor because we have had quite a lot of deers crossing the road so this is going to be an additional challenge to manage those situations as good as we can.
“Of course I think in such situations we might have to accept sometimes to lose a bit of time because you really cannot know what they will do, they are running in all directions. But yeah we have seen quite a lot of different animals.
“In the past there were helicopters to give the signal to the drivers when there were animals or locals on the road. Unfortunately this doesn’t exist anymore so we are now on our own and have to manage as good as we can if it’s possible because there are some really flat out, narrow sections.
“I think the road is maybe one meter wider than the car only so if there are animals in the bushes and they cross the road I mean there’s not much you can do.”
Do you agree with Ogier? Or should the Safari be a slam-dunk to be included in future WRC calendars? Have your say in the comments.