Friday’s running of the Safari Rally Kenya was a war of attrition. However, after a much less hectic Saturday, Thierry Neuville has extended his lead to almost a minute before Sunday’s closing stages. Several of the FIA World Championship’s big names suffered difficult setbacks yesterday amidst some of the most gruelling terrains on the WRC calendar. As has become well documented, this is the first Safari Rally in the WRC for 19 years, and it returned after its two-decade absence with some ferocious bite. Dani Sordo, Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanperä all succumbed to the difficult stages and paid a hefty price on the timesheet. Sebastien Ogier had his share of bad luck either but remained in podium contention.
Saturday’s stages proved to be far less troublesome for the drivers on faster and more forgiving surfaces around Lake Elmenteita. Thierry Neuville picked up his impressive Friday form by winning the days opening stage. He extended his leading margin to 26.3 seconds of Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Takamoto Katsuta as a result. The pair of Neuville and Katsuta (the latter fighting for his first WRC podium in a Toyota Yaris) traded times over the final two stages of the morning loop. Neuville extended his leading margin to 28.1 seconds heading into the afternoon service.
The star of the morning running was reigning champion Seb Ogier, who won both the Soysambu and Sleeping Warrior stages. His speed helped him fight his way back to podium contention, although the Frenchman was keen to stress that he was remaining cautious in his approach;
“It’s not a huge push, but we have to keep some pressure as much as we can do. The gaps are big, so there’s nothing you can really catch in a normal fight, but it’s Safari and so many things can happen.”
A mature approach from Ogier, who saw his deficit to 3rd Placed Ott Tänak cut down to just 37.6 seconds before the afternoon service.
Ott Tänak and Sebastien Ogier continued their pursuit of the Rally leaders at the beginning of the afternoon running. Ogier took the win on SS11, and Tänak followed suit on SS12. The Estonian was closing in on second place Takamota Katsuta at this point, eating away at his 37-second deficit. Thierry Neuville was more than happy to maintain his rally lead with a steady approach.
The final stage of the day brought a little slice of Friday’s chaos back to the rally. A downpour on the Sleeping Warrior stage brought plenty of drama to round out the days running. Katsuta was unsettled in the wet, shaken by the muddy and slippery conditions. He lost a further 20 seconds to the rally leader in the process. Ott Tänak had to stop for two minutes to fix a misted-up windscreen, conceding third place in the standings to Ogier. The reigning champion now sits just behind Katsuta by an 18-second margin.
It was another successful day for M-Sport Ford. Their drivers Gus Greensmith and Adrien Formaux retained their positions of fifth and sixth. However, even they weren’t without their slices of drama. Greensmith ran off the road on the slippery final stage and required assistance from co-driver Chris Patterson to find his way again. Formaux managed to find himself having a wild two-wheeled moment on the penultimate stage of the day.
Of the drivers who suffered on Friday, Kalle Rovanperä is faring best, sitting in a lonely seventh position in the standings. Elfyn Evans has surged back up the rankings to 12th. Dani Sordo won the final stage of the day and is just behind Evans in the standings.
Rally leader Thierry Neuville had this to say after Saturday’s running;
“I am relieved to be in the lead of Safari Rally Kenya after the final stage we faced today; it doesn’t matter by how much, keeping the position was the most important thing today. We have pushed hard over the past two days to be in front, so I fought hard and refused to lose the position. I knew that other drivers had rain in the stage, but I was already in wet conditions after only 3km. I realised that I was losing time already there, and that it could only get worse. I was determined to keep driving as fast as I could, even in the four or five sections where there was a heavy downpour. Keeping the car on the road wasn’t easy but we managed it – and we can now focus on the final day. It’s going to be another rough one, but I enjoyed those stages in the recce, so I hope we can have a trouble-free run and secure the win.”
Here is how the top six looks ahead of Sunday’s stages:
|1||11||T. Neuville/M. Wydaeghe||BEL/BEL||Hyundai Motorsports||2:45:04.6|
|2||18||T. Katsuta/D. Barritt||JAP/GBR||Toyota Gazoo Racing||+57.4|
|3||1||S.Ogier/J. Ingrassia||FRA/FRA||Toyota Gazoo Racing||+1:15.5|
|4||8||O. Tänak/M. Järveoja||EST/EST||Hyundai Motorsports||+2:21.2|
|5||44||G. Greensmith/C. Patterson||GBR/IRE||M-Sport Ford||+2:39.4|
|6||16||A. Fourmaux/R. Jamoul||FRA/BEL||M-Sport Ford||+2:51.4|
Sunday’s action will see the drivers navigate north and south of Lake Naivasha. There will be two runs of the forested Loldia and Hell’s Gate stages. In between, there will be the rocky Malewa stage. The second running of Hell’s Gate will be this event’s bonus points-awarding Wolf Power Stage.