Have you caught your breath from that frantic Safari Rally Kenya yet? We haven’t.
There’s plenty to talk about from the latest round of the World Rally Championship, including Sébastien Ogier’s victory, Takamoto Katsuta’s breakthrough podium and Hyundai’s missed opportunity – again.
So, let’s talk about it all! Here’s what we learned from round six of the 2021 season.
Hyundai is running out of feet to shoot itself with
In our Italy ‘what we learned‘ article, we joked that we could just copy and paste our thoughts from Portugal with Hyundai suffering another suspension failure from a leading position on the two rallies.
Little did we think we’d be reaching for the keyboard shortcuts once again for Safari Rally Kenya. The script was slightly different this time as it was Thierry Neuville, not Ott Tänak, leading and the failure occurred on the final day (not Saturday), but the overriding feeling is the same. It simply isn’t good enough.
Hyundai cannot keep allowing victories to slip through its fingers. Of course, the Safari is a rough-and-tough event so the chance of mechanical failure is amplified compared to other rallies, but the running theme cannot be ignored.
Team principal Andrea Adamo insists nothing on the car is new for this year, but quite clearly something is amiss. The suspension looks like it’s made from a bag of chips, not sturdy metal. Don’t forget Dani Sordo’s high-speed spin out of the rally on Friday was caused by a suspension failure too.
Answers need to be found, and quickly. Toyota is a mighty force at the best of times, let alone if it’s being allowed to accept gift after gift after gift.
The one thing Hyundai can’t be knocked for though is its togetherness. Both Neuville and Adamo spoke about how they wanted to find solutions as a group; not point the finger at anything or anyone. That’s important, but not as important as winning in Estonia. Hyundai has to if it’s serious about winning the world championship.
Ogier is now overwhelming title favorite
He’s done it again. Somehow as the years roll on, Sébastien Ogier seems to get more and more impressive.
He pulled off an against-the-odds victory in Sardinia and arguably usurped that in Kenya, battling back from a two-minute time loss with a damper problem to claim the 53rd win of his WRC career.
That, coupled to a bad rally for all of his title rivals, has grown his championship lead to 34 points and it’s really, really difficult at this point to see anybody other than Ogier and Julien Ingrassia winning the 2021 title.
Ogier’s approach was exemplary. Managing the car where he needed to and pushing when it was comfortable, he quickly began benefiting from others’ strife as the rally wore on and put himself in the perfect position to strike.
Halfway through the rally he was over 1m30s down on the lead and over 30s shy of the podium, but when Tänak slowed and Neuville retired, Ogier was suddenly up to second. Katsuta put up a good fight, but realistically once Ogier could smell the victory, there was only one way the result was going.
There’s a growing perception that Ogier is looking just as dominant as he was for Volkswagen in a Toyota. It sounds like a bold claim, but when you give it some real thought, it’s hard to construct a super-compelling argument against it. Five wins from the last seven WRC rallies speaks volumes.
What Ogier’s purple patch does do though is give Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans a massive headache. His consistency had kept him in touch with Ogier prior to Kenya, but that went on stage three when he was arguably too greedy, took a cut and found a stone hidden in the bush. Game over.
In recovering to 10th place Evans still has an average finishing position this year of 3.66, the highest of anyone as Ogier is on 4.5o.
Tänak can’t shake his Saturday curse
While Neuville was Hyundai’s high profile casualty in Kenya with his damper failure while leading, Ott Tänak probably should’ve been the man to profit. Yet he wasn’t.
Saturday just isn’t the day for the 2019 world champion. His two retirements while leading in Portugal and Italy were both on Saturday, and in Kenya an issue on the penultimate day cost him a victory too in hindsight.
This time the problem wasn’t terminal – the windshield fogged up on his side and co-driver Martin Järveoja had to be Tänak’s literal eyes until the duo decided they best stop and try to clear the mist.
But, it did cost Tänak 1m42.2s relative to Ogier on the stormy stage. His deficit to the rally winner after Sunday? 1m09.5s.
“It’s amazing, the quality is amazing,” Tänak sneered after the stage. Ironically it was the second windshield issue of Tänak’s Safari as he had a leaking washer bottle on stage two.
His “what’s going on guys?” retort to the stage-end reporter, staring straight down the camera lens as he said it, was somewhat telling.
In reality though things could’ve been a lot worse for Tänak in Safari. His haul of 20 points was bettered only by Ogier’s 27, and he has his home event coming up next where he will undoubtedly start as favorite.
Katsuta is good enough to be a works driver
For all that Neuville was robbed of victory and Ogier oozed class with his masterful drive, the real man of Safari Rally Kenya was Takamoto Katsuta. What an absolutely fantastic season this young driver is having.
There was always the likelihood that the Safari would produce a surprise podium, but it highlights Katsuta’s progression in 2021 that his second place finish hasn’t really been considered a surprise. Nobody is truly shocked that he did it, rather tremendously happy for him that he did.
Katsuta’s drive in Africa typified his season to date. Fast yet dependable, determined yet sensible, focused yet relaxed; Katsuta stuck to “his job” flawlessly and was rewarded with a second place finish.
He sensationally shared the overall lead with Ogier with two stages to go, but he didn’t get sucked into a fight he knew he would probably lose given the comparative experience levels of the two drivers and their tire selections. Instead he just kept on going, did his thing, and scored a tremendously popular result.
The question is: what’s next? A first victory? Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has urged Katsuta not to rush such an accolade, but he certainly looks like a winner-in-waiting.
With the rumor mill constantly swirling about the formation of Toyota’s line-up next season – and who may or may not partner or replace Ogier – current junior driver Katsuta is looking increasingly like a very strong option indeed.
M-Sport must do everything to keep Fourmaux
From one impressive youngster to another, step forward Adrien Fourmaux. The M-Sport driver punched in a hugely accomplished drive on a weekend where the other WRC’s rookie barely even registered as a footnote.
You’re not supposed to be able to win stages and claim your third successive top-six finish on your third-ever WRC start in the top class. But Fourmaux did just that in Kenya. OK, his decision to go off the stage on Sunday morning’s opener was a tad short-sighted and naive, but it cost him little as he was only dropped to fifth behind his team-mate.
Fourmaux picked his battles, electing to back off when the going was sketchy and put the hammer down when the going was kinder. The fact he took his very first stage win and was the only WRC driver not to encounter any serious problem shows it was the right tactic – and it’s a strategy that’s reminiscent of a certain other Frenchman in the WRC right now.
To contextualize it further, Oliver Solberg (the aforementioned rookie starlet) was perhaps a bit too eager in Kenya. Smacking a bank on the first proper stage was an unfortunate error, but it can be argued he wasn’t quite kind enough to the car thereafter.
Solberg is a man with an undoubtedly huge WRC future ahead of him, which is little surprise given the family heritage. Fourmaux managed to upstage him, and just a few years ago he was a medical student with no rallying pedigree whatsoever.
There’s so much more time to come for Fourmaux in a rally car, which is a tantalizing thought when you see what he’s capable of now. It’s more than likely he will be at M-Sport again next season, but the team must do whatever it can to keep him for the longer term. He really is that good.
Safari was even better than we hoped
As soon as we saw the onboard of Neuville blasting his way down a stage with a giraffe casually standing meters from the road, towering over the Hyundai, we knew we were right to be so excited by the Safari.
This was the first time the current crop of drivers were experiencing the rally and the first time a generation of fans were too, and it did not disappoint. The roads even looked unique (which can’t be said for lots of the standard European events) while the challenge they threw up was reminiscent of the Safari of old.
Thick layers of fesh-fesh, hazardous water-crossings, rock-strewn passes and crazy weather all played their part last weekend, and of course the scenery on show was simply spectacular.
You can’t predict if the attrition rate will remain as high when the WRC returns again, as drivers have learned more about the terrain, but the beauty of the Safari is it requires a different approach. The best rally drivers in the world should have to face the most diverse conditions, and they did in Kenya.
It was also nice to feel like the WRC was truly going global. Africa hasn’t been visited since the championship last touched down in Kenya in 2002, and it was clear to see it has been missed. The footage of young children waving at the cars go by on transit sections – let alone the stages – was magical and in the spectator zones you could hear their delight over the noise of the World Rally Cars!
And as an added bonus, Asian driver Katsuta’s podium made the WRC truly feel like a ‘world’ championship and not just a European-centric affair.
What do you think the biggest turn around last week was? Have your say in the comments below.