Sébastien Ogier’s used to the feeling of winning World Rally Championship rallies.
Before last weekend’s Safari Rally Kenya, he’d stood on the top step of the podium some 57 times. Throughout his first championship-winning season in 2013, he won an incredible nine times. Even this season he’s won three times, despite missing two of the seven rounds.
But ask any competitor, and they’ll tell you that that winning feeling never gets old.
However Ogier’s 58th WRC win, third with Vincent Landais and second in Kenya, seemed to mean that little bit more.
Sitting down in the FIA press conference a matter of hours after sealing his victory by a slender 6.7 seconds over Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanperä, Ogier came over quite emotional.
“I think I am going to enjoy this one,” he said, “and it will take a bit of time to let it sink in because all of the elements I had to fight during this rally made it very exhausting, but it is also in adversity that you enjoy the wins the most.
“This one, I will for sure count it as good one and a well-deserved one so I am a very happy man today.”
Here, we explore the three key factors that made Ogier’s 2023 Safari victory one of the most special of his 16-year WRC career.
Known as the roughest and most demanding event on the WRC tour, no driver boards the plane to Africa expecting to have an easy time of it.
Ogier knows to his cost how the Safari can bite back. Even when he won the rally back in 2021, the eight-time world champion punctured and had a broken damper on the first day before eventually rising to first as others were sidelined.
There’s no such thing as a simple drive to victory on the Safari.
Ogier did his best to disprove the theory this year, grabbing the lead from Thursday’s superspecial winner Ott Tänak and keeping hold of it thereafter.
But make no mistake, the Toyota driver was up against it.
“I think our pace was great and we had the capacity to push and make some difference when we wanted, but also every day we were hit by a couple of issues,” Ogier explained.
“We had the hybrid on day one, then three punctures on day two, and we lost the tailgate on Sunday morning after a very little impact. It was not so lucky I would say but OK it was my mistake.”
The Frenchman went deeper into his troubles in an exclusive column for Red Bull.
“It was really strange – we must have just touched the car on the wrong angle, but it really felt like nothing,” Ogier wrote.
“To see that everything was gone from the back of the car was really surprising. It was not a big mistake, but it came with a big consequence. When it first happened, honestly I didn’t feel it immediately. I was pushing very hard in the stage and really focused.
“The surface in this stage, it’s a soft ground with big ruts coming and these ruts give you some grip; the car is kind of stuck into them and it’s maybe less sensitive to the loss of aero. It didn’t cost so much time, in fact I was quicker towards the end of the stage – definitely I could feel something because I had a higher top speed on the straight. It was like an extreme DRS system!
“We had one more stage to drive like this, so Vincent and I knew we had to try to keep the dust out of the car. We took what we had to block the area where the tailgate was. Luckily that last stage of the loop was damp, so we had no problem with the dust. The car was quite oversteery, but really not so bad to drive on this one.
“The biggest worry for me was coming in the last stages, with the fesh-fesh. I mentioned already those ruts, but when they get really deep on the second pass, you can’t anymore decide your line. You have to follow the ruts which are full of this really fine dust. Basically the nose of the car was digging in the ground and collecting the dust into the radiator.
“This stopped the air going to cool the engine and caused a big overheating issue and I had to do half of the stage in road mode. I will not tell you what the number was, but my engine temperature was extremely high!
“Normally, it was a point where you needed to stop, but I decided to continue. I’m not sure this engine will be used again!
“We all got the alarm telling us about the high temperatures, but I got it first – it was a big, scary moment. To drive in these conditions, it’s tough to focus – but because of the issue you are also not going at full race speed.
“Our engine luckily is strongly built and it probably lost a bit of power through the end of the weekend and the powerstage, but it still brought us back.”
There was of course the small matter of a rock being flicked up from the road and breaking the windshield of Ogier’s GR Yaris Rally1, too.
And that wasn’t all he had to worry about…
Toyota’s two world champions, Ogier and Rovanperä, have never really gone toe-to-toe before.
When Rovanperä rose to the WRC’s top class and became team-mates with Ogier, he was building his craft and therefore not quite ready to fight for a championship. By the time he emphatically was in 2022, Ogier’s appearances had become fleeting rather than permanent.
On the occasions where Ogier was around, there was little in the way of a fight. Rovanperä struggled on the Monte, Ogier crashed in Portugal and then punctured in Safari.
In New Zealand they finished first and second but there was no battle – and it was the same in Spain as Rovanperä, just 4.8 seconds behind Ogier, appeared uninterested in challenging his more decorated team-mate and duly fell to third.
In short, Ogier and Rovanperä have never found themselves in relatively close quarters, both fighting for the same rally win. Until last weekend.
In the main, Ogier always had it under control – over half a minute clear of his successor as world champion until a puncture on Saturday’s final stage closed the gap to 16.7s.
Something had changed in the dynamic. A small amount of friction was building
But Rovanperä kept him more than honest – particularly with that big push on Sunday’s opener that drew an irritated stage-end response from Ogier.
“Yeah… for someone playing the championship, it was a nice talk.”
With all of his championship rivals behind him, Rovanperä had been expected to just settle for second – but he set a time that felt like a statement sent squarely in Ogier’s direction.
Something had changed in the dynamic. A small amount of friction was building, which was even acknowledged by team principal Jari-Matti Latvala in Toyota’s post-event press release.
“We also had close competition between our drivers and there were maybe some tensions when it got tighter,” Latvala was quoted.
“But this is normal: we want drivers that have the passion to win. They can’t all win all at the same time, but I’m sure they will all see what an achievement this result is.”
Ogier wrote in his Red Bull column: “Kalle did another good rally, really strong. He was able to get through the whole Safari without any problems, which was remarkable for such a tough event – especially when you think about the number of issues I had!
“People were talking about his time on the first stage on Sunday morning. For him to push on this extremely rough stage, I was not expecting. Of course, I was not expecting him to let me win easily – I start to know him and I know he is the same as any good driver who will do the same.
“But it took me by surprise that he decided to do this in the roughest section. For sure, this gave me some more pressure.
“It was a big fight for three days. It’s those things which help to make this the most satisfying win.”
It’s not just the notorious nature of the stages that makes Safari Rally Kenya such a classic. The wildlife – and the people that embrace the rally so warmly – all make it that extra bit special too.
On his first visit to the Safari in 2021, Ogier fell in love with the place. It’s why in both of the last two seasons, Ogier has included the rally in his part-time program.
“I think you see it. I think you’ve seen it as well,” Ogier said when asked by DirtFish what keeps him coming back to Kenya.
“Simply the smile of all the people here. If there’s one thing to keep me coming back I think it’s that, and this wonderful nature as well.”
That joy is juxtaposed with the unavoidable reality that there is a lot of poverty in Kenya, but Ogier is doing his bit to help in any way he can.
“We are not all equal in this world and the people who can afford to need to help those who are less fortunate,” Ogier explained in his Red Bull column.
“I travelled to see a village where they struggle for water. For water! I mean this is element number one that a human needs to survive. I worked again this year with the wellfairfoundation to make a donation and to help where I can.
“I always want to help this country and to give support to these beautiful people, who always welcome us with the big smile, even if they don’t own much.
“It gives a real understanding of humility and reminds us that you don’t need so much to be happy. All of this combines when you win the race and stand on the podium – it was the right decision to come here.
“Thank you Kenya.”