For the third time, the modern generation of World Rally Championship stars will experience the African adventure that is this weekend’s Safari Rally Kenya.
As round seven of 13 in this year’s championship, things are certainly heating up in the battle for both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles as the WRC lands in Kenya.
And on a rally as unpredictable as this, there’s every chance a potentially decisive twist could be in store!
As 2023 is only the third visit to this classic event in two decades, previous form is hard to go by. But both the 2021 and ’22 editions, plus recent performances on other gravel rallies, do provide us with enough intel to deliver you this form guide for Safari Rally Kenya 2023:
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-1st-4th
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 1st (2022)
Here’s a statistic for you to kick things off. The last time a World Rally champion didn’t win the Kenyan round of the WRC was all the way back in 1994, when Ian Duncan took victory for Toyota.
That’s an omen that will suit Kalle Rovanperä down to the ground.
In the hunt for victory in 2021 before he was swallowed by fesh-fesh, the Finn made amends last year as he led home a dream 1-2-3-4 result for Toyota.
Rovanperä needs a win less than his championship rivals do, but that’s not going to stop him trying to pinch it. A definite favorite to repeat his 2022 success.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-5th-33rd
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 5th (2022)
Thierry Neuville has already identified the Safari as a big rally for him to win, given the two high-speed Estonian and Finnish events that come next aren’t his strongest.
Hyundai’s number one has gone well here in the past too – leading in 2021 before he was cruelly denied by broken suspension and battling on to finish fifth last year in an event that exposed Hyundai’s reliability.
But things have dramatically improved since and Neuville starts round seven as the WRC’s form man courtesy of his victory last time out in Sardinia.
Let’s see if he can buck the recent and much-talked about trend and start his event strongly on Friday.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 35th-4th-2nd
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 3rd (2021)
The fact the first three drivers in the championship all drive for different teams points to how competitive the 2023 season has been, but the momentum has started to seep out of Ott Tänak’s challenge of late.
Fast in Portugal but derailed by a tire issue, then sidelined in Sardinia as one of a handful of drivers to be undone by a water-splash, Tänak will be hoping its third time lucky in terms of gravel rally form this weekend.
The 2019 world champion has performed strongly in Kenya on his previous two visits (he likely would have won in 2021 had his windshield wipers not failed on Saturday’s final stage) but doesn’t yet have the headline result to show it.
Could 2023 be his year?
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-DNF-1st
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 2nd (2022)
The sleeping giant of this year’s title race, Elfyn Evans is a real dark horse for victory on Safari Rally Kenya.
His form in Africa is mixed – clipping a big rock in 2021 can retrospectively be viewed as the event that swung the championship momentum firmly in team-mate Ogier’s favor, while last year he came home second behind Rovanperä – but he has all the attributes to succeed on the Safari.
Nothing showed that more than the Welshman’s incredible repair and perseverance to keep his GR Yaris Rally1 in the rally following its argument with a water-splash in Sardinia.
Evans isn’t always the fastest driver in the WRC, but in Kenya he doesn’t need to be. To win you need to be the smartest, and Evans is right up there with the best of them.
#17 Sébastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 14th-5th-1st
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 1st (2021)
After that sensational start to the season where he led the world championship after México despite missing Rally Sweden, Sébastien Ogier’s form has dipped a touch since.
Sardinia was a rare off-weekend for the eight-time champion, but that’ll just make him even more determined to bounce back in Kenya – an event and country which he loves.
Ogier isn’t interested in championship points and permutations this season, purely rally wins, so it’s very clear what his target will be.
And it would be completely foolish to think that he can’t become the first repeat Safari winner of the modern era given, obviously, his win in 2021 and how well he performed last year before his puncture.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-3rd-3rd
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: N/A
Three podium finishes on the bounce marks the best form of Esapekka Lappi’s career, and arguably he’s the top performer in the entire championship right now too.
But the affable Finn may struggle to make it four podiums from four in Kenya given he’s never been to the country before this week, let alone started the rally.
Naturally that puts him at a disadvantage, but anything is possible on a rally like this so it can’t be assumed that Lappi won’t find himself in the race.
Once again though, his own ambitions may need to be sacrificed for the greater good of the team depending on where he finds himself relative to Neuville come Sunday.
#6 Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-2nd-5th
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 12th (2021)
A third rally in a row for Hyundai’s dependable number three as the team only last week confirmed who it would be bringing in to share the third i20 N Rally1 for the rest of the season.
Absent from Kenya last year as Oliver Solberg took the wheel, Dani Sordo will be at a slight experience disadvantage compared to some – an unusual situation for the 40-year-old to be in!
But throughout the Hyundai years Sordo has made dependable points scoring his speciality.
If the car holds together, Sordo will be there in a good position come the end.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 40th-33rd-6th
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: 2nd (2021)
Two previous visits, two podium finishes. No event has been kinder to Takamoto Katsuta in the past than Safari Rally Kenya.
But the Toyota driver arrives in Africa in relatively poor form, having finished in the top 10 just twice all year.
Deciphering what to expect from Katsuta then is tricky, but in all likelihood he should be a contender this week.
He knows what it takes to secure a top result, and would love nothing more than to bring yet another trophy home with him from Naivasha.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Nicolas Gilsoul (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-32nd-7th
Best Safari Rally Kenya result: N/A
Like Lappi, Pierre-Louis Loubet has no prior experience of Safari Rally Kenya – but that shouldn’t stand in the M-Sport driver’s way.
Things haven’t quite clicked together for Loubet thus far in 2023, but his performances in both Portugal and Sardinia have been encouraging while they lasted.
Loubet seems prepared to bide his time and play himself into this one, which could well be a strategy destined for success.