On Wednesday, June 22nd, the test session of the 2022 WRC Round 6 Safari Rally Kenya began. The Safari Rally, officially held again after 19 years, is an event boasting a long history and extreme difficulty. Despite the difficult circumstances of last year’s pandemic, the rally succeeded in being marked on the WRC calendar again this year. When the 1953 Safari Rally began, it was merely an event to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1960, the name was changed to East Africa Safari Rally, and from 1974 it was called Safari Rally Kenya as it is today. It became part of the WRC calendar in 1973 and lasted until 2002. In other words, it is a historic event celebrating the 30th WRC held in 2021.
Safari Rally is, in a word, wild. The rough road surfaces, high temperatures, and rapidly changing weather conditions of the African continent are full of difficulties. In the past, it was closer to a Rally raid (long-distance off-road race) as the length was over 1,000 km, but with the comeback last year, it was drastically shortened to 320.19 km. Nevertheless, it boasts the worst difficulty in WRC.
On the off-road, numerous obstacles torment the participants every moment. It’s hard for any car to survive if you drive down this road like a normal Gravel Rally; It is not easy to even follow a path with faint traces in the thick dust. A fine soil called fesh-fesh is also annoying. This is why Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä retired from racing last year after falling into a pit. On the other hand, when it rains, it turns into a muddy pool, as if running on ice.
The scorching heat of midsummer Africa pushes the participants’ physical strength, concentration, and durability of the new rally car to the limit. Sudden heavy rain is never a welcome guest. Last year, Hyundai Motorsport’s Ott Tänak had to stop his car for a while after failing to fix a castle in heavy rain. Sometimes wild animals block the road. As such, participants must adapt to the unpredictable wilderness and survive.
Being able to take a break after winning the 5th round in Italy, Hyundai Motorsport formed their driver squad with Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak, and the rising star Oliver Solberg. Same configuration as last year. Neuville recorded the most stage top time in last year’s safari rally, but his car collapsed due to suspension damage on the last day, leaving a disappointment. Now second in the championship, he will need to win this safari rally to close the score gap with Rovanperä. As for Tänak, this is an important race for his championship title. Solberg, who retired early last year, has to finish the race this time.
Toyota gave his car back to Sébastien Ogier in addition to Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta. Rovanperä is leading the championship with huge margins with three wins this season. On the other hand, Evans is desperate to keep his place in the team because of his underperformance.
At M-Sport Ford, the two veterans – Loeb and Ogier – have once again faced off since the opening match, with Sébastien Loeb entering. Loeb is the only Rally 1 driver to experience a previous safari rally. In addition, M-Sport Ford, including Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux, and Gus Greensmith, brought five Puma Rally 1 cars to Kenya. The last one was driven by Belgian Greek driver Jourdan Serderidis. For reference, M-Sport is selling Rally 1 cars to private teams.
Again this year, the service park is located near Lake Naivasha, 100 kilometers northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi – adjacent to the Wildlife Service Training Institute. Unlike last year, there is one more stage, and about 1/3 of the course has been redesigned. The course length was increased by more than 40 km to 363.44 km, and the participants who completed the reconnaissance said that it would be a more demanding and tough race than last year.
After the opening ceremony in downtown Nairobi on Thursday, the contestants kicked off at 2pm on the Kasarani Super Special Stage in the northeast of the city. Ogier was the fastest in SS1, which started two at a time, followed by Neuville and Tanak.
Friday was six 124.2km-long SSs repeating three stages, starting with the forested 19.17km-long Loldia on the north side of Lake Naivasha. In Geothermal of the new SS3 and SS6, drivers have to climb up and down steep stone roads and ramps. The 31.25km-long SS4 and SS7 Kedong is the longest stage in the Safari Rally and has the longest history. Sharp rocks hidden in the soft soil attacked the drivers.
Loeb led the opening stage on Friday. However, in the SS3 that followed, Toyota’s drivers dominated the overall rankings. This was also due to the bad luck of Hyundai and the M-Sport; Tanak broke the shift lever on the SS2 and had to shift gears by holding its root. Neuville was once pushed down to 9th overall due to the engine’s lack of power in Kedong.
Rovanperä, who was the fastest in SS3 despite the handicap of leading the way, rose to the overall lead, with Ogier losing about two minutes from a tire change. But Ogier wasn’t the only one suffering from the nightmare of Safari Rally. Loeb had an engine fire and retired on the Kedong stage, Fourmaux’s rally car roared and lost speed, and Breen was frustrated by the broken steering. Greensmith also disappeared from the lead because of the puncture of the right rear tire.
The lead at the end of Friday was Rovanperä. Katsuta and Evans followed him, then Hyundai’s Tanak and Neuville followed in 4th-5th places. Tanak is 25.3 seconds behind the lead, and Neuville 57.5 seconds. Katsuta was initially 4th overall, but the damage caused by Breen’s broken car was proven via a stewards’ decision, shaving 10 seconds off his total rally time.
On Saturday, the drivers moved a little further north and repeated three stages near Lake Elmenteita. The 134.9km-long SS8-SS13 were the longest of the race. In particular, Soysambu, where the opening race was held, was 9km last year, but this year it was completely reconstructed with a nearly 30km-long long-distance stage. It condenses the characteristics of Rally Kenya: long straight lines, high-speed corners, rough rocks, uphill and downhill slopes, two waterways, and a muddy road surface. The following Elmentita and Sleeping Warrior stages are the same as last year. The Sleeping Warrior got its name from the shadows cast by the hilly terrain, reminiscent of Masai warriors.
Taking the opening stage, Evans overtook his teammate Katsuta to rise to second place. In the next SS9, the Neuville was the fastest despite the broken windshield. Tanak also finished third and seemed to close the gap with the leaders. However, at the end of the Sleeping Warrior, the propeller shaft broke and he had no choice but to retire.
Neuville, who conquered SS9 and SS10 in the morning, marked the second-fastest in SS12, beating Katsuta and rising to 3rd overall. But after that, bad luck stopped him; The last stage of the day, which was slippery due to rain, the engine shut down while crossing the water at Sleeping Warrior. In the end, Rovanperä finished Saturday with the overall lead, followed by Evans, Katsuta, and Ogier. Neuville was in fifth place, 10 minutes behind the lead. And despite a 1:30 penalty for fixing the suspension on the roadside, Solberg placed sixth, thanks to Breen, who broke his car on Friday.
On Sunday, at Lake Naivasha again, the final winner was decided after six stages repeating the three stages: Oserian, Narasha, and Hell’s Gate. SS14 Oserian is located in a wildlife sanctuary, and Narasha is a Rift Valley with dry pavements that crosses the historic Maasai realm. The Hell’s Gate stage closes near Fisher’s Gate. Fisher’s Gate, a rocky wall towering over the flat ground, is a popular day-trip tourist attraction in Nairobi. The power stage that ends the Safari Rally takes place here.
On the opening stage, Solberg’s car stopped in the middle of a narrow road as the air filter was clogged with a large amount of dirt. Drivers affected by this were given the same record. This made it nearly impossible for Neuville and Tanak to stand on the podium, and they ended up aiming for a power stage point. At SS16 Hell’s Gate, a rehearsal of the power stage, Tanak had the top time, followed by Neuville by 6.3 seconds.
In SS17, where the opening Oserian has repeated again, due to a number of problems encountered in the previous SS14, the 17.52km-long course was shortened to 14.42km after cutting off the front fesh-fesh part. The leaders were separated by at least 30 seconds from each other, so they focused on completing the race rather than driving excessively. In SS19, the final and power stage, Neuville beat Loeb by 0.8 seconds to set the fastest record, earning an additional 5 points.
Eventually, at this year’s Safari Rally Kenya, Rovanperä took the lead by a huge margin and secured his fourth victory of the season. Evans and Katsuta stood on the podium, and Ogier finished fourth. Hyundai’s Neuville finished the race in 5th place, and Tanak unfortunately retired due to a malfunction in the steering system. Instead, Solberg settled in 10th and was able to add valuable points. Behind Neuville were Breen, Serderidis and Loeb of the M-Sports Ford forces.
Toyota’s Rovanperä maintained the top spot in the championship with 145 points. 2nd is still Hyundai’s Neuville – he’s 5th overall, plus 5 additional power stage points, making a total of 80 points. Toyota’s Katsuta tied with Hyundai’s Tanak with 62 points, but Tanak maintained third place with one win. Returning to Europe, the WRC prepares for Round 7, the season’s turning point. The next race will be held in Tartu, the second-largest city in Estonia, from July 14 to 17.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.