This week the World Rally Championship has descended on Nairobi, embarking on a rally that none of the current driver-lineup has experienced before.
There’s plenty of new experiences for them, not only the location, but also the tight nature of the stages and the unique wildlife that Africa has to offer.
All of the drivers got their first taste of the rally as they completed their recces on Monday and Tuesday and it was immediately clear to them that a number of unique challenges lie ahead.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo explained: “The feeling is OK. Maybe surprised to drive in this nature and the stages.
“Honestly there were some places, like really rough at the moment, but other places were sandy and really fast.
“For me I was surprised because the rally is really narrow and quite fast in some places.
“You have a big car, and the size of the car is like 70 meters between the trees so it’s quite very short corners and sometimes difficult to see the road because of the grass and stones.
“In one corner you have the stone and other corner you don’t have, and I think it’s easy to remove the stone so you need to be really confident in your pacenotes.”
It’s not just the narrow width of some of the stages. The surface is incredibly rough, and with the road seemingly disappearing at certain stages it can be hard to maintain speed.
But Thierry Neuville doesn’t think outright pace will be the winning ingredient, and teams will need to find a compromise.
“I think that it’s not the rally where we’re going to be flat out all the time. At least this will be my approach, I’ll try and maybe not slow down and get away with it,” he said.
“[There are] really nice characteristics on Sunday’s stages I love them. They’re also rough but it’s different.
“The stages on Saturday we have seen so far on Friday the longest stage of the rally, they’re much faster and that’s where the roughness is mainly the biggest issue because you can have huge steps of 22, 40cm in a sudden straight line or just on the exit of a fast corner.
Whoever strikes the balance correctly will be the guy who's successful at the endElfyn Evans
“So that makes it really challenging as it’s difficult basically to know how fast you can really go. And if you slow down too much you’re going to lose time. If you go too fast you could damage the car.”
It is a thought echoed by Neuville’s M-Sport rival, Adrien Fourmaux, who feels a more conservative approach will play dividends in the long run.
“I think the faster driver will not win on this rally because you can easily have damage on the wheel,” Fourmaux reasoned.
“Because even on the straights, you don’t see in the fesh fesh what it is and sometimes you hit something, you don’t know why.
“So it’s really challenging for everybody, and we need to be smart in our pacenotes, because even in the straights we need to have something in the pacenotes to be out of the line sometimes just to carry a bit the risk of puncture or to damage the car.
“I think it’s just we need to be quite clever and be careful with the car because it’s still a long rally even if it’s not the Safari from the 2000, but it will be still a big challenge for the car and the crew for sure.”
The fine dust of the Kenyan gravel will no doubt be another factor for the drivers as they tackle the rally, and in some sections, they will literally be arriving blind. Neuville even admitted that it was difficult to see on some stages on the recce due to the slow pace of some of the local drivers who were ahead on the road.
Go too fast in those blind sections and you’ll hit a rock and most likely damaging the car like Oliver Solberg did on his shakedown run. Go too slow and you risk being left behind.
But although the dust and sand will make visibility hard, Toyota’s Elfyn Evans believes it could be an aid for drivers starting later on the road.
“Who knows how the road will evolve? We could see it getting faster,” he said. “It probably will get faster looking at normal dry gravel rallies, it always does improve with the cars behind, and also they’ll have the added benefit of lines to follow, which won’t be so easy first car on the road for Seb [Ogier], and obviously the early cars won’t have as many lines to follow.
“The recce and our notes will be quite key here I think,” added Evans. “There’s some sections which are very fast which are going to require a lot of commitment, and of course there are sections which are going to require some management in terms of looking after the car and looking after the tire.
“So I guess it’s whoever strikes that balance correctly will be the guy who’s successful at the end. But it’s not going to be an easy balance to find I don’t think.
Safari Rally Kenya will ultimately be a test of which driver can balance their pace the best and it will definitely be survival of the fittest. Quite apt for a rally surrounded by an animal kingdom that lives by the same mantra.