It’s been nineteen years in the making, but the Safari Rally Kenya (24-27 June) is finally here. The year’s most eagerly awaited event on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar didn’t disappoint. The rally that was famously known for its gruelling nature has lost none of what once made it great. After Thursday and Friday’s running, it is Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville who leads the way. His fortune comes in the wake of several championship protagonists succumbing to the Safari stages.
On Thursday afternoon, Safari Rally Kenya officially marked its return to the WRC circus with a Super Special Stage on the outskirts of Nairobi. The stage featured a purpose-built 4.84km track full of sweeping curves and exciting jumps in front of excitable crowds. Those crowds had the pleasure of seeing WRC stars take to the stage in a head to head style format.
The stage led to a frighteningly close result in the standings, with the Toyota Gazoo Racing squad heading the field with a 1-2-3. Championship leader Sébastien Ogier led his young Finnish teammate Kalle Rovanperä by just 0.3 seconds! Following behind the Toyota trio was Ott Tänak in fourth, Thierry Neuville in fifth and Takamoto Katsuta in sixth.
Drama, drama, and yet more drama is what awaited the WRC’s top guns throughout Friday’s action. Several big names suffered issues, from the alarming to fatal during Friday’s running, with harsh luck seeming to befall upon everyone’s shoulders. Championship leader Ogier suffered an oil loss in a rear damper on the longest stage of the weekend (Stage 3). This setback contributed to his near 2-minute deficit to the Rally leader come to the end of the day. Welshman Elfyn Evans suffered an even worse fate, retiring for the day just 300 metres from the end of SS3, a rock hitting his front right wheel being his downfall.
Dani Sordo came a cropper in the same stage, a stone smashed a suspension arm on his Hyundai i20, sending him sideways and buried in a ditch. His Belgian teammate Neuville suffered no such issues on Friday morning, taking the first two Stage victories and an early rally lead.
Moving into the afternoon, Kalle Rovanpera emerged as Neuville’s fiercest challenger, taking the rally lead at some points. He had employed a considered approach, getting himself into contention. However, disaster befell the young Finn during the final stage of the day. Rovanpera’s Toyota Yaris got beached in deep dust and was eventually towed free and out of the leading fight. The harsh luck also came to haunt young Oliver Solberg as damaged suspension and a damaged roll-cage put an end to his rally.
Ott Tänak lost time on SS7 with a puncture, just about holding onto third place at the end of the day. Even Thierry Neuville wasn’t without his troubles, two punctures and an engine issue meant he had to limp home during the day’s final stage.
Takamoto Katsuta and the M-Sport duo of Gus Greensmith and Adrien Formaux employed steady tactics. They finished the day in second, fifth and sixth. Steady was the day’s optimal strategy, with Ott Tänak suggesting that even 60% pace was too much for some parts of the rally. Before Saturday’s running, Thierry Neville leads Katusta by 18.8 seconds, a further 37 seconds back is Ott Tänak in third, fourth in the rally thus far and 1min49.4seconds behind Neuville is Ogier. Greensmith and Formaux complete the top six.
At the end of Friday’s running, Neuville had this to say;
“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.”
Tomorrow, stages around Lake Elmenteita will host 132.08km of action, the longest segment of the weekend. There’s sure to be even more drama to follow what has already been an intense Rally.