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WRC Safari Rally: Sublime Rovanpera tames a wild Safari to head Toyota 1-2

Kalle Rovanpera delivered a stunning drive to win a gruelling Safari Rally as Toyota claimed its fourth consecutive victory at the famous World Rally Championship event.

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Two-time world champions Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen clinched a first victory of the season in the second event of a partial campaign by a dominant 1m37.8s from Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta. M-Sport’s Ford’s Adrien Fourmaux claimed a second career WRC podium in third, 2m25.1s adrift.

Rovanpera was fast and faultless through Kenya’s 19 stages, which are renowned as the toughest on the WRC calendar. The 2022 Kenya winner judged the rough gravel conditions to perfection, ending the rally as the only Rally1 driver to complete the event without suffering any major delays.

The Finn’s victory was set up by a perfect Friday where Rovanpera won all six tests to open up a 56.9s lead. His advantage ballooned to more than two minutes after a chaotic Saturday as each of his rivals battled through accidents, punctures or mechanical issues.

After banking 18 points for his efforts on Saturday, this afforded Rovanpera the ability to cruise through Sunday’s six stages to seal a 12th career WRC victory in one of the driest Safari Rally’s in recent memory. The success was Toyota’s first of the season. 

Like Rovanpera, Katsuta adopted a cautious approach knowing the attritional nature of Kenya’s roads. The Japanese driver ended Friday in third overall before his progress was halted by front and rear-right punctures picked up in the extreme Sleeping Warrior stage on Saturday morning.

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Takamoto Katsuta, Aaron Johnston, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

However, issues for rivals Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans meant he climbed to second where he would remain at the finish despite suffering a puncture in Sunday’s stage 14. The result equalled his best career WRC finish achieved in Kenya in 2021.

M-Sport’s Fourmaux also matched his best WRC result, recorded in Sweden last time out, courtesy of a smart and trouble-free drive. The Frenchman benefitted from rivals hitting trouble but delivered an impressive performance, the only issue being a front-left puncture on stage 14. Back-to-back podiums and fourth on Sunday maintained third in the championship.

Title contender Evans brought his Toyota GR Yaris home in fourth [+4m20.2s] after an eventful four days. The Welshman was firmly in the podium fight before suffering four punctures through Saturday that pushed him down to fourth earning him 10 points. Evans pushed hard on Sunday but could only finish third in the Super Sunday classification, securing five bonus points on top of another one clinched in the Power Stage.

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Hyundai’s Neuville finished fifth [+10m17.5s] after enduring a challenging rally impacted by punctures and reliability issues. A puncture on stage three put him on the back foot before he climbed back to second when Evans and Katsuta suffered tyre failures. The Belgian soon plummeted back down to fifth at the end of Saturday after losing more than 10 minutes to a fuel system issue in his i20 N. 

Neuville fought back on Sunday, despite damaging his right-rear suspension on a rock in stage 16, to finish second in the Super Sunday standings and take six points on top of the eight earned at the end of Saturday. A Power Stage win meant he extended his championship lead over Evans to six points.

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Ott Tanak claimed the maximum seven points by topping the Sunday standings, which was the highlight of a troublesome rally, where he finished eighth overall [+21m02.0s]. The Estonian crashed out of second position when he hit a rock that slammed his i20 N into a bank on Friday’s stage six. Tanak battled a myriad of issues with his i20 N on Saturday before emerging as Sunday’s pacesetter as he left Kenya fourth in the championship. 

The third Hyundai driven by Sweden winner Esapekka Lappi finished 12th overall as reliability gremlins bit the Korean marque hard.

The Finn was sitting second before suffering a terminal transmission failure in stage five. Lappi also lost time to punctures when he rejoined on Saturday before being reduced to a crawl after two birds struck his car, smashing his windscreen. A second transmission failure struck his car on Sunday.

A left-rear suspension failure caused by a run in with a rock on Saturday ended Gregoire Munster’s chances of a solid points haul in the second M-Sport Ford Puma. Munster had been sitting sixth before the incident. 

In WRC2, Gus Greensmith produced an impressive drive despite suffering from a stomach bug to win the class in what was his first round of the season. The Toksport Skoda driver finished sixth overall with a 1m23.1s margin over WRC2 rival Oliver Solberg.

Solberg also battled illness through the week, but his victory hopes were dashed by two punctures on Friday. The Swede leads the WRC2 standings heading into Croatia later this month.

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