How good was that? Safari Rally Kenya is done for another year, and it served up so much drama Thierry Neuville was able to crash out on Saturday and restart Sunday still in fifth overall.
It’s a challenge that none of the other events on rallying’s world tour provide, but as is becoming a bit of a theme of the 2022 season it was Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä that mastered it to take yet another victory – his fourth in five rallies.
Perhaps then we should rename this particular column ‘what has been confirmed’ or something equally as uncatchy for this round only, as Safari didn’t so much teach us new things but mostly reinforced things we already knew.
But nevertheless, here are the main takeaways from round six of this year’s World Rally Championship:
Rovanperä is too good to be caught
In the immediate aftermath of Rovanperä’s latest win, Jari-Matti Latvala confessed that he’s “running out of words” to describe his star driver. So are we.
What else can be said about the runaway championship leader Rovanperä other than that he’s found that enviable sweet spot of comfort, speed and assurance that is so brilliantly effective for him but absolutely devastating for everybody else.
The championship situation makes for grim reading if you’re anybody other than Rovanperä or Jonne Halttunen. The Finns could sit out both Rally Estonia and Rally Finland and head to Ypres with at least a five-point championship lead – and that’s assuming Thierry Neuville wins the rally and powerstage on both events.
You can never say it’s over until it genuinely is, but this one’s only really going one way. Rovanperä is showing no signs of weakness, no signs of wilting under any pressure. He’s simply too good to be caught.
What’s retrospectively a shame is that Sébastien Ogier called it a day in terms of full-time rallying this year. It would’ve been fascinating to see what Rovanperä in this kind of form could’ve done against the champion within the same team.
Toyota has a clear edge
Rovanperä’s victory was one thing, but the difference between Toyota and its two rivals Hyundai and M-Sport Ford was stark in Kenya. Not only was the GR Yaris Rally1 leagues ahead in terms of reliability, it may well have had a performance edge too.
The speed is harder to read as the Safari wasn’t a flat-out attack kind of rally, but a Toyota topped the times on 11 of the 19 stages and could well have scooped more had its drivers not decided to back off, such was their advantage over the rest.
Reliability-wise there were a couple of niggles. Ogier briefly lost his clutch, Elfyn Evans’ wipers failed and Takamoto Katsuta had an oil leak from his gearbox, but we really are splitting hairs to point out these faults when you consider how rough a challenge the Safari was, and this was the first time Toyota’s hybrid machine had taken it on.
Tom Fowler will have a big smile on his face, as his car was bulletproof. And the same most definitely can’t be said about the Hyundai i20 N or Ford Puma Rally1.
On a rally as brutal as Kenya, Toyota’s current superiority was laid bare for all to see. It’s now up to the others to respond.
M-Sport would be lost without Loeb
No team would say no to the expertise the most successful driver in the history of the WRC can bring. But 10 years after his last full season, it’s a bit worrying that M-Sport Ford is relying so heavily on Sébastien Loeb for any kind of strong result on pace.
On each of the three rallies he’s done this season, Loeb has comfortably been the quickest of the Puma drivers. He led and ultimately won the Monte, led Portugal before uncharacteristically crashing and was within a second of the lead in Kenya too before a mechanical halted his attack.
To his credit Craig Breen has collected two podiums this season (more than Loeb), but on pure pace he’s not been at the races. The Safari powerstage perhaps proved the point best, where Loeb was just 0.8 seconds off Thierry Neuville’s stage-winning effort and the next fastest Puma of Gus Greensmith was 9.6s further back.
Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux are clearly not operating at the peak of their potential as drivers still learning their craft. There’s an element of that with Breen too given he’s never done a full season before, but it can’t be ignored that M-Sport’s driver lineup is costing it dear in the manufacturers’ championship.
Part-timer Loeb is consistently proving the car can do it, but currently M-Sport is 40 points behind Hyundai and 102 adrift of Toyota. Loeb doesn’t reckon he’ll be back until Greece (if at all), so Breen, Fourmaux and Greensmith need to step up if the team has any designs of a handy championship finish.
Hyundai’s still in big trouble
The indications were there during Rally Italy that, despite the win, Hyundai wasn’t out of the woods with its ongoing struggles in 2022. Safari Rally Kenya well and truly hammered that home in what was the team’s worst result since the disastrous season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
The pace of the i20 N Rally1 doesn’t appear to be a grave concern. Although Thierry Neuville in particular has been prone to complaining about the driveability of the car or the handling, the general consensus seems to be that the car is at least competitive enough to win stages and rallies.
What will worry Hyundai is the consistent reliability problems that keep appearing.
Ott Tänak’s rally is the best example as he experienced three completely separate problems across the event, first when the gearstick snapped on the first Friday stage, then his propshaft broke on Saturday and his power-steering went on Sunday.
But the big tell-tale sign was when Tänak said the propshaft failure was “unrelated” to the particularly demanding Safari conditions, adding “it’s just a mechanical issue”.
Engine and air filter problems were a persistent issue for Oliver Solberg – the i20 N Rally1 stalling and sputtering where the GR Yaris and Puma ploughed on. And Neuville was forced to pull off another mammoth effort in between stages to fix a sudden alternator problem.
Julien Moncet has said “definitely next week will be very intense in the factory” but it needs to be. Patience is wearing very, very thin from all three drivers – and rightfully so.
Katsuta is a Kenya king
Takamoto Katsuta has now scored two podiums in his WRC career. Both were on Safari Rally Kenya. Is that enough to call him a one-event specialist? Not quite, but he certainly seems to have an affinity with the terrain.
Even though the result was actually one position poorer than 2021 – third not second – there’s actually a real case to be made that Katsuta’s performance was stronger this time around.
He never put a foot wrong, and was up at the sharp end as a result of his raw speed, not just his consistency. And that’s perhaps the most encouraging thing – on Friday in particular Katsuta was pleased with the feeling in the car, and that’s seldom been the case throughout the year.
There is something about the Safari that seems to bring out the best in Katsuta. He’s now equal third in the championship and on his way to two rallies – Estonia and Finland – he really enjoys but has never scored big on in the past.
For now the ‘Kenya king’ tag feels appropriate, but eye-catching results on those next two (that could not be more different than Safari) and Katsuta will shake it off in no time.
WRC can’t ever lose Safari again
There have been some comments on social media suggesting that the Safari isn’t fit for purpose in modern rallying, that the cars in their homologated spec aren’t suitable for the rugged conditions.
But aren’t they missing the point? That’s precisely what makes the Safari a brilliant edition to the championship. Not all rallies should be the same, and Safari Rally Kenya certainly can’t be accused of being like any other current event.
The conditions this year were far more extreme than last year, and pushed both drivers and cars to the limit. Fesh-fesh proved particularly problematic – Malcolm Wilson suggesting it was “spoiling” the rally a little bit – and it was too thick at points that the first stage of Sunday’s loop had to be shortened for the second pass.
But it was truly fantastic to see some real fighting spirit back into the world championship – where events were decided by minutes, not tenths of seconds. As Oliver Solberg exclaimed midway through one of the stages: “Yeah, this is proper rally!”
There are obvious and important benefits for the WRC to have a true global footprint and presence in Africa too, let alone the fact that the Safari Rally is an evergreen legend.
It’s tough, yes, but when was rallying supposed to be easy?