Just before the last weekend of June, the most exciting rally of the WRC season kicked off – the 2021 WRC round 6, Safari Rally Kenya. Although people may assume that WRC has never been held in Africa in recent years, it was actually held in Morocco and Kenya for a very long time. In particular, there has been 29 rallies in Kenya, making it as legendary as Rally Italia or Rally Spain. First held in 1953, the Safari Rally joined the WRC in 1973 but left again in 2002 due to financial and security issues.
As the name suggests, drivers must drive through wild terrain, battling high temperatures, rough roads, and ever-changing environments; In other words, it is a survival game. In the last race in 2002, 37 rally cars were retired and only 11 survived. Stages over 100km were common back then, making total mileage 5,000 to 6,000km. Safari Rally Kenya was supposed to resume last year, but it was delayed until this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The road surface of the Safari Rally is unimaginably rough. When it rains, the dirt road turns to mud within seconds, and wild animals pop out. For this reason, drivers often needed wire mesh to protect the headlamps or a snorkel to keep water out of the engine. The Safari Rally, however, has changed a lot compared to 20 years ago. First of all, the course length has shrunk to 30km, the total length of the race 320.19km, and the mileage of 1,133.94km. Compared to before, it has been reduced to 1/5, making it similar to other rounds. Nevertheless, the safari rally still remains dangerous, and no driver has ever experienced such an unfamiliar environment.
Service Park is located near Lake Naivasha, 100 km northwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak, and Dani Sordo of Hyundai participated right after Rally Italia. Continuous retirement widened the score gap with Toyota; Something has to change.
Hyundai team has practiced on the Gravel course in southern Portugal, as testing is strictly prohibited outside of Europe. Rookie Oliver Solberg, unable to join Rally Italia due to self-quarantine after Rally Portugal, participates for the first time in Rally Gravel in his World Rally Car through the Hyundai C2 Competition (in Portugal he drove an i20 R5). His father, former WRC champion Petter Solberg, had made his WRC debut at the 1999 Safari Rally and ranked 5th.
Hyundai has been to Kenya before – played in their last safari rally in 2002, Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix retire, Juha Kankkunen finished 8th. Back then, Hyundai was in the middle of WRC (2000-2003 season). Even so, Hyundai did not participate in the safari rally from the beginning because there was no dedicated race car and the cost was too high.
Toyota and Ford, on the other hand, have long history. In particular, Toyota won eight times in Kenya from 1984 to 1995. Although, this year Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans have the most championship points, so they have to do the road cleaning. Kalle Rovanpera drives Toyota’s third car again, not to mention Takamoto Katsuta.
Colin McRae from Ford snatched Kenya in 1999 and 2002. For this race, Ford tried the unique way of remote commanding from the UK where most of the staff, including M Sport Ford manager Richard Milner, were headquartered in England. This was due to cost concerns and the need to follow the UK’s self-quarantine guidelines for Kenyan visitors. In addition to Gus Greensmith, who participates in every safari rally, M Sport Ford brings in newcomer Adrien Fourmaux, who performed well in Portugal. Lorenzo Bertelli drives the other one. He is the successor of fashion brand ‘Prada’, and like Toyota’s Katsuta, he cannot contribute to the manufacturer’s championship score.
Another interesting participant in the safari rally was Sobiesław Zasada, a 91-year-old Polish veteran, who won the European Rally Championship three times. He has participated in the WRC six times so far and finished second in the 1972 Safari Rally. This time, he drove the Ford Fiesta Rally 3 and became the oldest WRC driver.
As drivers took pace notes as they explored the course on Monday and Tuesday, they finally realized that this legendary rally wasn’t going to be easy. The road was narrow and often overshadowed by grass and stones, so it was not unusual for them to even find their way. If you slow down, it would harm your ranking; and if you push it too hard, you’d go off course unless the car breaks.
Shakedown took place on Wednesday, which was earlier than usual. A service park near the course indicated that the safari rally was going to be really difficult; at just 5.4 km, Oliver Solberg broke the suspension and Lorenzo Bertelli broke the radiator.
On Thursday, June 24, the race began in the northeast direction after a ceremony at the Convention Center in downtown Nairobi. On the 4.84km-long Kasarani Super Special Stage, where the two cars depart together, Ogier recorded the leading time of 3 minutes, 21.5 seconds. The Toyota Trio took the top three with Rovanpera in second and Evans in third. Speaking of Hyundai, Tanak came in 4th, 2.5 seconds behind the lead, Neuville in 5th by 5 seconds, and Sordo in 11th.
On Friday, June 25, the real safari rally finally began on the wide plains near Lake Naivasha. In the middle of the 129.78km-long SS2~SS7 section, with three repeated to bring the day’s total to 129.78km, 32.68km Kedong, (SS3 and SS6) is the longest stage in this game. Chui Lodge (SS2 and SS5) and Oserian (SS4 and SS7) are adjacent to the Oserengoni Wildlife Sanctuary, full of wild animals.
Hyundai attempted a counterattack this morning; Neuville recorded the leading time of 9 minutes 47.7 seconds in SS2. In Kedong, Toyota’s Evans hit a rock hiding in the bushes and collapsed, and Toyota’s leader Ogier also wrecked his car. Sordo also retired 4km before the finish line with the rear suspension broken. Solberg and Bertelli’s cars stopped in the middle of SS4.
Neuville snatched the lead while many drivers struggle. Rovanpera took the lead briefly in the afternoon SS5 and SS6, but in SS6 Kedong, Neuville took the lead again. In SS7 he kept the lead, even with tire punctures and engine failures. After finishing Friday, Neuville said, “There was a little bit of drama with the punctures but we were able to manage and get back to service. It was a tough day but tomorrow is going to be another tough day. We have learned a lot and we need to introduce that tomorrow to avoid such small problems.”
Closely chasing Neuville, the Rovanpera of Toyota was blinded by dust and fell into the black sand. The soft black sand called fesh-fesh is a trap for rally cars. Rovanpera retired, making Katsuta 2nd place – The time difference with Neuville was 18.8 seconds. Tanak missed the chance to catch up, with a tire puncture while driving in third place. He had driven at no more than 60% pace in his i20, but even that was too fast. Ogier, who lost pace due to a broken oil canister, was in fourth – 56 seconds behind Tanak, and followed by M Sport Ford’s Greensmith and Fourmaux.
On Saturday, June 26, the race was held near Lake Elmenteita in the north. The 6 courses of SS8 to SS13 are 132.08km in total and consist of repeating 3 stages twice. The Soysambu (SS9 and SS12) stage is a nostalgic reminder of old safari rallies, with a mixture of long straight lines, slippery corners, and rough roads. The boundaries of the road are vague and things don’t comply with their pace notes, making it difficult for most players to find their way.
On the opening stage, Elmenteita, Neuville recorded the leading time, getting farther from his competitors. Ogier was the fastest in SS9, where wild animals thrive, followed by Fourmaux, Neuville, and Tanak. Ogier conquered two stages in the morning and chased Tanak, who was in 3rd.
The drivers have adapted little by little to the wild, but the safari has not yet fully revealed itself. The last course on Saturday, SS13 ‘Sleeping Warrior’, showed another side of safari. It suddenly rained right after dark clouds gathered in the sky, the road surface turned to mud, and the hard tires lost their grip. Tanak lost nearly a minute because he could not see in the heavy rain and the driver’s screen heater didn’t work. Neuville drove rather aggressively to get away from Ogier, who had come through a relatively dry road, which allowed him to finish Saturday while maintaining the lead. Tanak fell to fourth place, 18.2 seconds from Greensmith.
On Sunday, the drivers returned to Lake Naivasha for a final showdown at the 53.49km-long SS14-SS18. All five courses were about 10km-long stages, but it was very difficult to go through. It runs through forested Loldia and Hells Gate on the south side of the lake, followed by the rugged, stony Malewa stage. After that, drivers have to repeat the Roldia and Hells gates again. The 10.56km-long Hells gate, which is also a power stage, is the highest of all at over 2,200m above sea level.
Neuville started Sunday nearly a minute ahead of Katsuta in the second. But the dream of winning quickly turned into a nightmare. During the opening stage, SS14, he broke his suspension and could no longer drive his car, making Katsuta and Ogier fight for the lead. In addition, the second half of the SS15 Hells Gate was shortened by half as a while patrolling along the course problem was confirmed. Ogier chased Katsuta and drove it perfectly side-by-side in SS16, while Tanak finished third by 1 minute and 9 seconds. Behind him, Fourmaux took the lead in SS17, but Tanak still had 23 seconds to spare. There is now only one Power Stage/SS18 left in the match.
Hells Gate, which was shortened in the morning, was again 10.56 km long in SS18. Ogier further solidified his championship with 133 points in his fourth win of the season. Katsuta finished second, which is a personal best. After struggling on Saturday, Tanak eventually finished third on the podium. In addition, he narrowed the score difference with Neuville to 8 points by taking 5 additional points in the final power stage. In the manufacturer’s championship, only Rovanpera gets to contribute, not Katsuta, making Toyota 273 points and Hyundai 214 points.
Back in Europe, Round 7 will be held in Estonia on July 15-18. Joined during the crisis last year, Rally Estonia is now indeed a part of the WRC, not to mention Ott Tanak from Estonia who conquered the place last year. Let’s look forward to seeing the fine performance he will show in his hometown this year.
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. 27 years have passed since then, the years of plowing through the writing struggles of an auto journalist. After becoming an editor for 〈Car Vision〉, I came to my current position as the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉. 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.