Winning your class on a World Rally Championship round is usually something to be pretty happy about. Even if there were some tribulations along the way.
One of the appeals of rallying is that it can be an adventure – driving on challenging terrain in spectacular environments, the likes of which many of us would only see on an exotic vacation.
It doesn’t get more exotic, spectacular or challenging than Safari Rally Kenya, widely celebrated as a true classic of WRC.
For the winner of WRC3 this year, there was plenty of satisfaction for overcoming the obstacles that Kenya threw his way. And, yes, he enjoyed the challenge. But it wasn’t the most fun-filled experienced.
“To be completely honest, it was a nightmare,” said Diego Domínguez after taking his second WRC3 win of 2023, lifting him to second in the standings behind Roope Korhonen in his Ford Fiesta Rally3.
It was the Paraguayan’s second attempt at the Safari in the car. He lacked competitive experience of the stages though, having crashed out on SS4 last year – only his fourth event outside South America.
“This rally definitely passed the expectations,” continued Domínguez. “I was here last year and I only did the stage in Nairobi, Loldia, but I retired in Kedong. I have to say it is really tricky to finish this rally without having to do SuperRally in a Rally3 car. I have to say the Fiesta Rally3 is pretty tough.”
Domínguez led WRC3 from the start, winning Thursday’s superspecial at Kasarani to take an early lead of 6.8 seconds over local driver McRae Kimathi. But Domínguez was prepared for things to get harder when the longer stages began on Friday.
“I think this year is going to be tougher than last year so we are just going to try and keep it steady, and try to finish this time,” he said.
Through the challenging, bumpy 12 miles of Loldia on Friday morning, Domínguez was second fastest, his lead cut to just 2.7s by another Kenyan driver and Junior WRC rival, Hamza Anwar. Fastest through SS3 Geothermal, Domínguez then dropped nearly three-quarters of a minute to Anwar on Kedong – at 19 miles, the rally’s second-longest stage.
With it went the lead.
Domínguez lost further time on the second pass of Loldia before hitting back on the re-run of Geothermal. Anwar’s advantage was down to ten seconds as they headed back to Kedong. But this time it was the Kenyan’s turn to hit trouble on the stage, dropping 15 minutes as he struggled through before retiring.
Domínguez was back in front, leading DirtFish Rally School graduate Jason Bailey by nearly five minutes overnight. But it had been far from easy.
“Since the first stage of the rally we were having zebra, hogs, impalas, everything crossing in front of us,” Domínguez reflected. “Then there were all the ruts that WRC [Rally1] and [Rally2] cars were leaving for us to try and go through.”
When Bailey retired on the second stage of Saturday morning, Elmenteita, Domínguez’s lead ballooned to more than 20 minutes over Jeremiah Wahome.
But after battling through the muddy stages with almost non-existent grip in places, there was no time to rest and recuperate at lunchtime service. Instead, Domínguez had to help his small service crew perform a gearbox change in their 40-minute window.
“It is how you’re supposed to do it,” said Domínguez, invoking the true spirit of the Safari. “You have to help the people around you and it is something I enjoy doing.”
Job done, without incurring any penalties, Domínguez was back on the road – driving the only Rally3 car still running. While Bailey and Kimathi rejoined on Sunday morning, Domínguez’s lead was approaching an hour. He just needed to bring the car home to secure WRC3 honors.
Easier said than done when battling your way through rough stages in the wake of more powerful cars, especially when the loop is repeated. But while simply trying to survive, Domínguez was fastest on four of the day’s six stages as he claimed WRC3 victory by 55 minutes ahead of Bailey.
“Definitely one of the hardest challenges was today with the second pass of Oserian [the penultimate stage] which was a nightmare,” he said.
Fourteenth overall, Domínguez was more than an hour behind overall victor Sébastien Ogier. But he had completed the entire rally route and won his class.
Nightmare or not, claiming a class victory on the grueling Safari Rally is some achievement. One that Diego Domínguez can be immensely proud of – even when the memory causes him to wake up at night in a cold sweat.