WRC Safari Rally: The Good, The Bad and a history-maker  

The World Rally Championship’s visit to the Safari Rally was simply rallying at its purist. Kenya delivered a brutal, gruelling four-day slog for survival, but it was a familiar name at the top of the podium. Autosport reviews the highs, lows, turning points, close calls and heartbreak from a wild Safari Rally.

WRC Safari Rally: The Good, The Bad and a history-maker  

Top Performer - Kalle Rovanpera and Jonne Halttunen

It's hard to find a better duo in global motorsport at the minute than Kalle Rovanpera and co-driver Jonne Halttunen, following their fourth win from six WRC rallies this year. This was definitely their hardest victory yet virtue of Kenya’s extraordinary harsh terrain that made last weekend’s rally a real feat of endurance.

Starting first on the road, Rovanpera drove superbly. His only blemish came ironically on the very first stage - a fan-friendly Super Special in the centre of Nairobi. The Finn almost rolled his GR Yaris, picking up a puncture in the process, but even in that wild moment he coolly dealt with the situation. 

This was a rally where it was impossible to drive flat out all the time; a perfect balance was required to deal with the rough rocky sections and the deep fesh-fesh sand. The latter, Rovanpera knows all too well after witnessing his podiums hopes vanish when he became stranded in the sand at last year’s event.

Rovanpera made sure that wasn’t going to happen this year, despite the sand being even deeper and harder to navigate through. This was not a rally about outright pace, but Rovanpera still managed to reel off five stage wins from the 19 gruelling tests. After capitalising on punctures for team-mates and early leaders Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, he claimed the lead and never looked back.   

But it's his ability to find an extra edge when a curveball is thrown that will really start to worry his rivals. When torrential rain turned the Kenya savannah into a mud bath, Rovanpera thrived.

The Finn credited his extra-curricular drifting activities for perhaps giving him an extra edge in the slippery conditions as he blew team-mate and nearest rival Elfyn Evans away. In the end, Rovanpera claimed as comfortable a victory as is possible in Kenya, with a margin of 52.8s over Evans.  

PLUS: How Rovanpera tamed a wild Safari Rally

Rovanpera and Halttunen took their fourth win of the year in convincing fashion

Rovanpera and Halttunen took their fourth win of the year in convincing fashion

Photo by: Toyota Racing

While Rovanpera’s skill was key to victory, he couldn’t have achieved such resounding success without a bulletproof Toyota GR Yaris. The Japanese’s marque was supreme as Rovanpera led home a 1-2-3-4 with Takamoto Katsuta third and Ogier fourth. 

If Rovanpera continues this form, he could be crowned the youngest ever WRC champion before the summer is out. 

Honourable mentions: Takamoto Katsuta, Maxine Wahome

There were many outstanding drives at the Safari Rally, as Kenya tested the WRC’s elite to the limit, but the efforts of Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta and Kenyan history-maker Maxine Wahome deserve huge credit.

One of the most likeable characters in the service park, former circuit racer Katsuta delivered his second career WRC podium with a fine third behind Rovanpera and Evans. The Japanese driver is fast becoming a Safari master, after scoring his breakthrough WRC podium with second at last year’s event.

This year Katsuta outlined his talent in tough rallies, and on Friday emerged as Rovanpera’s nearest rival. Katsuta’s rally was not without its challenges, as he too suffered a puncture and lost his grasp over second. But after a 12-month run without a podium, the drive was one of his best to date.     

It’s not often a WRC3 driver can cause a stir like Wahome achieved. The 26-year-old part-time teacher created history by becoming the first woman to win a WRC3 round and the first female support class winner since Isolde Holderied on the 1994 Sanremo Rally.   

Maxine Wahome made history by winning out in WRC3

Maxine Wahome made history by winning out in WRC3

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Wahome only took up rallying at last year’s Safari Rally, and this event was her first in the new M-Sport Poland built Ford Fiesta Rally3, but the former motocross racer took the class win against more experienced drivers in the new four-wheel drive Ford. This could be the start of a very bright career for Wahome, who wishes to race in Europe. Her success has since been acknowledged by seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton on Instagram. 

Hyundai pair Thierry Neuville and Rally Sardinia winner Ott Tanak deserve a mention too as they drove almost faultlessly, but were let by their machinery’s fragility as the Korean’s marque’s reliability was laid bare for all to see. The pace was there, but the equipment's tendency to break down is becoming a recurring theme. 

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Neuville did however manage to salvage 15 points despite retiring on Saturday as he recovered to finish fifth and win the power stage, claiming five bonus points. Tanak ran was high as fourth but a transmission issue ended his podium hopes before a power steering failure put him out of the rally for good on Sunday.

Team of the Week: Toyota Gazoo Racing

If you wanted to conquer the Safari Rally last weekend, Toyota was the clearly the weapon of choice. The Japanese marque displayed how fast and reliable its new GR Yaris can be when tested to the limit as it secured a first 1-2-3-4 finish in the WRC since the 1993 Safari Rally. That not only underlined the brand's heritage for dominating tough rallies, but also highlighted it is a clear step above rivals Hyundai and M-Sport.

The achievement was perhaps made more impressive considering the Toyota showcased some weaknesses at Rally Sardinia earlier this month, when Evans suffered radiator failure and a broken suspension. Neither of its four cars featured on the podium in Italy, so to lock out the top four in Kenya was mightily impressive.

Toyota wasn’t immune to the worst that Kenya could throw at it, as the Safari sand did play havoc with engines and airboxes. But the fact none of the GR Yaris machines retired is testament to the work the team has carried out.

Toyota locked out the podium in Kenya, finishing with a 1-2-3-4

Toyota locked out the podium in Kenya, finishing with a 1-2-3-4

Photo by: Toyota Racing

“It was 29 years ago the last time in Safari [that a top four lockout occurred], so if that happens after every 30 years it is a very rare situation,” said Toyota team boss Jari-Matti Latvala. 

“I can be really proud of the team and the drivers, the work they have done is really amazing. The drivers were driving exactly the way this kind of rally needs to be driven.

“I think it is just the work that we have done. I can tell you, after shakedown, the drivers came back and had a feeling that the engines were quite hot. We were a little bit scared after the shakedown, but all the work the team did, that paid off.

“It is not a matter of luck but a matter of how well you prepare.”      

Hyundai and M-Sport both suffered mechanical failures during the event that caused retirements. Given Toyota’s success, the teams will certainly be working to address their reliability woes. 

Moment of Heartbreak 

Hyundai’s Ott Tanak had started the rally strongly, but lost 36.4s to a bizarre gear lever failure that required an on-the-road fix courtesy of a wheel brace and a jubilee clip. After dropping to 11th, he rose to fourth, only for a transmission failure to end his hopes of a podium. 

Tanak responded well to his bizarre gear lever problem before his transmission packed up

Tanak responded well to his bizarre gear lever problem before his transmission packed up

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

It was recurring theme for Hyundai, as Neuville was running strongly in contention for a podium when an alternator failed. He was able to fix it, but couldn't prevent water flooding his engine, costing him four minutes when the rain hit on Saturday afternoon. 

WRC legends Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier were also bereft of luck on their return to the championship with M-Sport and Toyota respectively. Loeb won Stage 2, but an engine fire put him out the rally while he was sitting fifth and just 15.9s off the lead. His old rival Ogier was leading the rally until a puncture on Friday cost him two minutes, effectively ending his chances of winning the rally in back-to-back years. 

Lucky Escapes

Rovanpera’s rally could have been completely different had he not been able to wrestle his GR Yaris back from this moment during Thursday’s Super Special. 

 

M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith was also lucky to emerge unscathed from being trapped in his Ford Puma for three minutes after a slow speed roll. The Briton was forced to kick out the windscreen to remove himself and co-driver Jonas Andersson while onlooking marshals refused to help. The pair donned some goggles and pressed on once the car, sans windscreen, was righted. 

 

Top Tweets

Oliver Solberg's enthusiasm for the worst the Safari Rally could throw at him was infectious.

 

Meanwhile, M-Sport adopted an approach of "if you break it you fix it" as team boss Malcolm Wilson put Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux to work to help repair their damaged cars.

 
 

Hot Shots

Sebastien Loeb, Isabelle Galmiche, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Sebastien Loeb, Isabelle Galmiche, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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

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

Photo by: Toyota Racing

Sebastien Ogier, Benjamin Veillas, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Sebastien Ogier, Benjamin Veillas, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

Photo by: Toyota Racing

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

Jourdan Serderidis, Frédéric Miclotte, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Jourdan Serderidis, Frédéric Miclotte, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Ford Puma Rally1

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

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