Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature
WRC Rally Kenya

WRC Safari Rally: The Good, The Bad and a battle between champions

Safari Rally Kenya once again issued a reminder why it's still revered in global motorsport as the World Rally Championship’s toughest event, as it served up a drama-filled classic. Autosport reviews the highs, lows, turning points and close calls from a gruelling African event

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Top Performer - Sebastien Ogier and Vincent Landais

There are not many drivers that can overcome the many hurdles Sebastien Ogier faced at Safari Rally Kenya and still come out on top. The eight-time world champion may be semi-retired these days, but he is still at the very top of his game.

Ogier and co-driver Vincent Landais assumed the rally lead on stage two and that was where they stayed for the remaining 17 stages. That may sound like it was a walk in the (safari) park, but that doesn't tell the full story. Ogier had to use all of his talent to score what will go down as one of his hardest fought victories.

The Toyota driver was brave to take the gamble of carrying only one spare on Friday, given the event is renowned for its high puncture risk. But this calculated move to run a lighter car proved a masterstroke in establishing an early 22.1s lead.

Three punctures on Saturday, including a double-front failure, didn't halt Ogier although he did come under increasing pressure from charging Toyota team-mate Kalle Rovanpera. Despite seeing his 32.0s lead whittled down to 8.6s, Ogier held his nerve. A small error that resulted in clipping a tree on stage 15 cost him his tailgate and rear wing, but Ogier still went on to win the stage and re-establish his buffer to Rovanpera.

An overheating issue caused by his GR Yaris ingesting sand and a rock smashing his windscreen on the final stage failed to stop Ogier from scoring a third win from five events in 2023. He held off Rovanpera by 6.7s, the closest winning margin in Safari Rally history. It will be remembered as one of Ogier's finest wins given the adversity he faced.

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

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

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Honourable mentions: Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen

Reigning world champions Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen appear close to being back at their very best as they impressed once again. Rovanpera's performance starting first on the road was exemplary as he slotted into second overall on Friday, a position he held to the finish.

The Finn drove smartly once his championship rivals Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak hit trouble to ensure he secured a strong points haul to boost his title defence. This was perhaps the first time this season where Rovanpera has openly admitted to driving with the title race in mind. A tyre that came off the rim towards the end of the penultimate stage was the only issue he suffered all event. 

The 22-year-old delivered a mature display befitting of a champion, while also showing flashes of brilliance; notably his stage 13 win when the heavens opened, creating incredibly slippery conditions that saw many of his rivals struggle. His fastest time set in the rally’s roughest test (stage 15) also turned heads, including Ogier's, after briefly halving the Frenchman’s lead.

Rovanpera didn’t quite have enough to beat his team-mate to clinch the victory, but the result has put the Finn firmly on course to defend his WRC title. 

Winners Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 with the team

Winners Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 with the team

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Team of the Week: Toyota Gazoo Racing

When Toyota scored a stunning 1-2-3-4 at last year’s Safari Rally, Toyota WRC boss Jari-Matti Latvala said: “It was 29 years ago the last time [Toyota scored a 1-2-3-4 in 1993] in Safari so if that happens after every 30 years it is a very rare situation.”

That statement has not aged well. Toyota repeated the feat a year later as Ogier led home Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta to once again prove that the Japanese brand is the master at conquering the Safari. Since the event returned to the WRC calendar in 2021, Toyota is undefeated.

This latest Safari domination was particularly sweet given Toyota headed to Kenya after a challenging Sardinia where the GR Yaris was questioned after it struggled to navigate through water splashes.

However, in Kenya the Toyota proved to be resilient, fast and strong as it tackled the harshest conditions on the WRC calendar. The car wasn’t completely bulletproof, as witnessed by the overheating issues that occurred after ingesting fesh-fesh sand on Sunday. Its water splash weakness also reared its head when Evans stalled his car after navigating through water on Saturday.

But to score a back-to-back 1-2-3-4 in the toughest event on the calendar is a hugely impressive feat and perhaps an achievement that will never be replicated. The result places Toyota firmly as the championship’s current benchmark operation.

“When we won this 1-2-3-4 last year I thought it was something that takes decades to [repeat] but it happened one year later," said Latvala. “What I can say is we have an excellent team of people, a reliable and strong car, and then we have the drivers who have the patience in this event to drive a clever way, which is a combination of driving fast but also slowing down for the rough places and understanding the history of this event. Coming with the right philosophy has achieved this result.”

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Moments of Heartbreak

Spare a thought for Hyundai’s Esapekka Lappi. The Finn impressed on his Kenya debut, despite failing to complete any runs in shakedown due to two prop shaft failures. Lappi climbed to third on Saturday and appeared on course for a podium when he suffered a third prop shaft failure on stage 11 that ended any hopes of podium.

Hyundai is set to carry out a thorough investigation after Lappi suffered another drivetrain issue when he rejoined the rally on Sunday.

 

To add to Hyundai’s reliability woes, Thierry Neuville retired from a comfortable fourth position when his front-left suspension failed on stage six. The Belgian rejoined the rally to recover to eighth before being disqualified for breaching recce regulations.

It is fair to say M-Sport’s Ott Tanak is not receiving the rub of the green in recent rounds. His misfortune struck again when a tyre came off the rim in stage four, costing the Estonian more than two minutes and ending any hope of strong points.

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Tomek Kaliński

Lucky Escapes

Rally winner Ogier had more than his fair share of lucky escapes on his way to victory. Three punctures cost him time but the Frenchman was fortunate contact with a tree only removed the GR Yaris’ tailgate on stage 15. Despite the distinct lack of aero, he managed to win the stage by 8.6s from Rovanpera.

 

Ogier was also fortunate to avoid a run in with a zebra and his car overheating after taking on sand on the penultimate stage.

Kenya is renowned for its unique set of hazards. The local wildlife required Tanak, the rally leader heading into Friday, to slow down in stage two prior to his tyre issue on stage four.

“It has been like driving in a zoo,” exclaimed the M-Sport man. “First, we met a pig in the road and then we had a group of zebras who didn’t give a f*** that we were coming.”

 

Toyota’s Evans can count himself fortunate that he was able to revive his GR Yaris after stalling following a water splash, which cost the Welshman 45 seconds on stage eight. He also rode his luck on the previous stage after driving through a small bush.

 

Team-mate Katsuta survived several scrapes, beginning with a roll in shakedown. The rollcage was undamaged, which meant the Japanese driver's car could be repaired by his hardy mechanics. Katsuta then made contact with a zebra on stage five before clouting a tree on stage seven, which was then followed by a puncture.

Top Tweets

M-Sport's Pierre-Louis Loubet found himself on the front pages of the newspapers when the President of Kenya William Ruto joined him in the co-driver seat.

 

 When it comes to camera work, the heli-cam is difficult to beat in the spectacular vision stakes.

 

The debris from Takamoto Katsuta's Toyota was put to good use by the fans.

 

This photo sums up the passion for rally in Kenya.

 

When it rains in Kenya, it doesn't mess about as the drivers discovered.

 

Hot Shots

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sébastien Ogier, Vincent Landais, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Pierre-Louis Loubet, Nicolas Gilsoul, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: M-Sport

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Esapekka Lappi, Janne Ferm, Hyundai World Rally Team Hyundai i20 N Rally1

Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport

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

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

Photo by: M-Sport

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

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

Photo by: M-Sport

Top Video

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation

Related video

Previous article Hyundai investigating running a fourth WRC car next year
Next article M-Sport not “massively concerned” after difficult WRC Safari Rally

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe