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Opinion
WRC Rally Kenya

Why Safari Rally Kenya’s unique challenge is imperative for the WRC

OPINION: At a time when drivers are pushing the World Rally Championship to improve its overall appeal to attract new manufacturers and widen its audience, the unique challenge offered by the Safari Rally is an important hook for the series’ future growth

Ott Tänak, Martin Järveoja, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

In recent weeks plenty of discussion and brainstorming has focused on how rallying’s top tier can be improved on several levels. This has largely been orchestrated by current World Rally Championship drivers who believe it is time for the discipline to make changes to grow. Technical and sporting regulations, event formats and series promotion are all topics that have been debated in several meetings between the drivers, the WRC Promoter and the FIA, with those ideas now being collated and investigated.

However, the Safari Rally is a prime example where the WRC has succeeded and is a cornerstone event that it must keep moving forward. Just like competing on the snow of Rally Sweden, the Safari Rally is one of the WRC’s unique selling points. A condensed version of the famous rally that began in 1953, it returned to the WRC after a 19-year hiatus in 2021 as part of the championship’s push to refresh its calendar with a host of classic events including the Acropolis Rally, Rally New Zealand and Rally Japan.

There is an elephant in the room of course. There is an argument that this new-look Safari Rally pales in comparison with the previous relentless 5,000km open road marathon across the Kenya wilderness, which provided the ultimate endurance test for drivers, teams and machines.

Nicky Grist, a three-time Safari Rally winner as a co-driver for Colin McRae, made just this point ahead of last week’s rally while also acknowledging that the event remains a challenge. Writing on Twitter, he called the schedule “a shadow of its former self”.

“Longest stage 31km? Gone are the days of 150km road sections, gruelling five days of competition where getting the car back to the finish was the biggest challenge a driver could face,” he wrote. Grist later added: “Endurance aside. The Safari Rally still has some challenges for the modern breed of WRC rally cars."

There is no hiding from the fact that the current Safari Rally features only 355km of competitive stages. But as last weekend proved, the rally is still one of the most challenging events in global motorsport.

All 10 Rally1 cars encountered issues inflicted by the conditions and nobody had a faultless run. Winner Sebastien Ogier had to overcome a loss of hybrid power, three punctures, a near miss with a zebra, losing his tailgate to a tree, an overheating issue and a rock smashing his windscreen. He saw off Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanpera by a mere 6.7s to claim a second Safari win.

PLUS: How Ogier held his nerve to repeat Toyota's Safari WRC rout

Ogier had to dig deep to see off Rovanpera for victory after an eventful rally full of twists and turns that underlines its worth on the calendar

Ogier had to dig deep to see off Rovanpera for victory after an eventful rally full of twists and turns that underlines its worth on the calendar

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Many would like to see the Safari feature longer stages, and that is fair enough. Who wouldn’t want to see more of the world’s best drivers being tested to the limit? However, budgets and the way sport is consumed now have changed. Like how most sports now have a shorter variant, the WRC has evolved into a more sprint-based formula compared to the past.

Yet the Safari Rally is still the ultimate challenge and imperative for the WRC. One of the reasons people are drawn to the discipline is the sense of adventure it provides, and few are bigger than hustling a WRC car through one of the harshest yet most beautiful environments on earth. The Safari in that respect offers a similar appeal to the Dakar Rally; the two events are about as wild and remote motor racing gets.

Three-time Safari winner Juha Kankkunen attended last weekend's event to drive Toyota’s new hybrid-powered Hilux that is aimed at the African market. He’s also in agreement.

"It is the toughest rally in the world. Even now it is short, it is always special,” Kankkunen told Autosport. “Now all the rallies are made in the same mould, but still you have special rallies like this.

"You can’t compare it to the old days. You have to compare it to the other rallies in the calendar and that makes the difference" Juha Kankkunen

“It is still tough. If you compare it now with Finland, it is a different type of road here. Even if you are only drive 350km, it is still different to a flat gravel road, so it is tough for the cars and for the drivers as they have to concentrate on all the stones.

“You can’t compare it to the old days. You have to compare it to the other rallies in the calendar and that makes the difference.”

Autosport was fortunate to venture out to the Soysambu stage in a helicopter to witness the conditions the drivers were facing first-hand. From the air as we flew into the stage, it is easy to understand why this is one of the toughest events on the planet. The roads sprawl through the jungle and traverse vast high-speed open plains, featuring a myriad of surfaces. There is rugged tough bedrock that can shake the cars and crews to their core, making pacenotes incredibly difficult to read. If that is survived, there is always a high risk of rocks shredding tyres.

The surface can then change in an instant to soft fesh-fesh sand that can cause drivers to get stuck, or disorient those who get lost in their own dust. Worse still, the dust can be scooped up and ingested by the engine, which can sap power and even end a rally prematurely.

The fesh-fesh sand is yet another distinctive challenge crews have to face on the Safari

The fesh-fesh sand is yet another distinctive challenge crews have to face on the Safari

Photo by: Tomek Kaliński

Kenya’s weather patterns are unpredictable too. They can render some parts of the stage bone dry while others are like ice thanks to water holes and mud. It is a full attack on the senses.

The roads vary in width from super narrow tracks with grass growing in the centre to wide open plains where several lines can be taken. Our visit was to one such area that was also home to a group of zebra and antelope, a fitting backdrop to this fifth-gear blast to the next jungle section. It’s only when you stand there in the open landscape that you understand just how remote a location this is and why the drivers and fans love this adventure into the wilderness. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own with only the wildlife for company.

 

Before you see the car, you can hear a constant buzzing that becomes progressively louder as a 500-horsepower Rally1 car approaches, without any hint of a lift. This full commitment foot-to-floor approach while bouncing over the many bumps, a rooster tail of dust in tow, truly is a sight to behold. It’s easy to see why footage of the cars on full tilt here often goes viral and why the drivers label this as the toughest event of the year. Four days of these conditions is a mental and physical test that still lives up to the historic Safari Rally.

Last weekend’s 70th-anniversary event ticked all the boxes, and after nearly two decades without the event on the WRC, we should be grateful that this unique challenge harking back to the glory days still exists.

It was a truly unpredictable event that created stories after every stage and made for compelling viewing if you had access to the broadcast. But herein lies the next hurdle for the future.

For those with access, the footage featuring heroic helicopter camera shots of cars blasting through Kenya’s wild terrain is must-watch television. A high level of engagement on social media provided further proof that the Safari Rally’s adventure aspect strikes a chord with fans and can be a powerful hook to attract a new audience to rallying. The next task is to capitalise on the Safari Rally’s successes and replicate its appeal.

The good news for rally fans the world over is the Safari Rally has a contract in place until 2026 at least. Judging from the positive reaction from the new government in power in Kenya, it should be set to stay for the future.

Whether or not the WRC can transplant what makes Safari so special onto other events, its place on the calendar is vital in safeguarding the championship's appeal

Whether or not the WRC can transplant what makes Safari so special onto other events, its place on the calendar is vital in safeguarding the championship's appeal

Photo by: M-Sport

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