Kalle Rovanperä has further extended his lead in the World Rally Championship as Toyota scored an historic 1-2-3-4 finish on Safari Rally Kenya.
Rovanperä led Elfyn Evans home by 52.8 seconds while Takamoto Katsuta completed the podium ahead of reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier.
With closest championship rival Thierry Neuville best of the rest in fifth, Rovanperä now has a whopping 65-point lead after six of 13 rounds, while Toyota’s advantage over Hyundai in the manufacturers’ championship has increased to 62 points.
Safari Rally Kenya returned to the WRC schedule last year for the first time since 2002, but this year’s event was far more brutal than what had preceded it 12 months ago.
Rovanperä was actually the first to be caught out, running wide on a sweeping left-hander on Thursday afternoon’s superspecial stage and almost rolling his car.
That put him on the back foot heading into Friday, outside the top 10 positions, but from there he slowly began creeping up the leaderboard.
Last year’s Safari winner Ogier was the overnight leader and became embroiled in a close fight with both Evans and M-Sport’s Sébastien Loeb across the first morning. That three-way fight became two-way when Loeb retired on the road section back to service – an O-ring failing and causing a small engine fire.
A mixture of a puncture and a cautious approach in general dropped Evans into the clutches of both his team-mates, Katsuta and Rovanperä, and Rovanperä soon hit the front on Friday’s final stage when Ogier lost over two minutes changing a flat tire.
From there, the battle was already defused. Rovanperä and Evans were equally matched across Saturday, but the gap ballooned on the final two stages of the day when the rain began to fall.
First, despite feeling unwell, Rovanperä destroyed the field by over 10s to win SS12, while a wiper problem in the rain limited Evans’ pace on the leg’s final stage and handed Rovanperä a 40.3s overnight lead.
With Katsuta holding station in third and Ogier rising from sixth to fourth across the day, all four GR Yaris Rally1 drivers opted to take it steadily on the final day in order to record a truly remarkable result.
“It feels great!” exclaimed Rovanperä.
“I have to say this was the hardest rally I’ve ever done and to be honest just thanks to the team. Four cars, no issues, clearly the strongest and fastest car, the team did a great job.”
Fifth place for Neuville was nothing to celebrate after another weekend where things just didn’t go right for Hyundai.
As early as the first morning Neuville was unhappy with the grip on offer from his i20 N Rally1 and then an issue with his air filter compounded him further. On Saturday he had to perform emergency repairs to his alternator between stages before then stopping on the final stage of the day when his engine cut out through water.
Neuville got going again, but just a few corners later he aquaplaned and crashed straight on into a tree, retiring from what had been third place.
The resultant 10-minute penalty for missing the stage only dropped him to fifth though and he was able to make it to the finish, a powerstage win more of a necessity than a handy bonus.
“To be honest I have not much to say. I mean the situation is really obvious,” said Neuville.
“Really disappointed and really disappointed for our mechanics as well because they don’t get any return such as us. Frustrating weekend.”
Things were however far worse for Neuville’s team-mate Ott Tänak who retired from the Safari not once but twice.
Fresh from winning the most recent round in Italy, Tänak came back down with a bang when his gearstick snapped on the very first morning.
Tänak overcame this problem and had got himself up to fourth place only for his propshaft to fail on the last stage before Saturday service. He restarted on Sunday but exited the rally for a second time when his power-steering gave up the ghost.
Craig Breen was M-Sport’s highest finisher in sixth place, but none of the four works Puma Rally1s made it through Safari Rally Kenya without having to retire at least once.
Breen, on his first visit to Africa, adopted an extremely cautious strategy and just pootled around to avoid any drama. But unfortunately he was stung by a puncture and then a component in the steering failing, putting him out on Friday’s final stage.
Restarting on Saturday, Breen’s pace was even more sedate than it had been before – he often described it as “boring” – but he made it through unscathed, despite an unspecified technical problem that hurt his pace on the last loop, to take a hard-earned sixth position
Adrien Fourmaux’s rally curtailed on stage five when a rear-left differential broke, and it got worse on Saturday morning when he got a puncture and then broke the suspension.
He did at least make it through Sunday and claim his second career WRC stage win on the day’s first test. Coincidentally, Fourmaux’s first WRC stage win was also on the final day of the Safari 12 months ago.
Gus Greensmith meanwhile had been running in the top five before a puncture wrecked his hopes. Choosing to carry on instead of stopping to change it backfired and Greensmith lost several minutes, ripping apart the rear-right bodywork of his Puma.
Things would get worse on the first stage of Saturday though when Greensmith suffered a soft roll on the very first stage. He was eventually righted but without his windshield, however was forced to pull up with engine cooling issues.
Feeling unwell on the final day typified what had been a struggle of a weekend, but Greensmith did make the finish – curiously just 4.4s behind team-mate Fourmaux, although both were well outside the top 10 and 1h19m shy of the rally winner’s time.
Jourdan Serderidis made history by starting Safari Rally Kenya as the first privateer to compete in a hybrid rally car in the WRC.
The M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 impressively made the finish in seventh spot, one position ahead of WRC2 winner Kajetan Kajetanowicz’s Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo.
Victory for Kajetanowicz was important as it moved him to the head of the championship standings ahead of the absent Yohan Rossel.
“It’s like a dream, I don’t want to wake up!” he said. “We won the hardest round in the WRC, it’s amazing.”
Loeb eventually recovered to finish ninth place ahead of Oliver Solberg, the latter of whom suffered with a list of mechanical niggles longer than his arm.
His biggest issue was on Sunday morning’s opening stage though when his i20 N Rally1 ground to a halt in the fesh-fesh dust and he had to change his air filter on the spot, blocking the stage and causing it to be canceled.
Solberg then dropped several minutes on the penultimate stage as his engine struggled for power, but all seemed to be resolved for the powerstage and he brought his car home for crucial manufacturers points.
“We know we have a lot of work to do for sure but I think at least it was great to come to the finish,” Solberg said.