WRC Safari: The Good, The Bad and a Dazzle of zebras
The iconic Safari Rally returned to the World Rally Championship after 19 years with a bang. A blend of brutal roads, unpredictable wildlife, wild weather on harsh but beautiful terrain made this a true adventure the WRC perhaps has been lacking. Autosport reviews the highlights, lowlights, turning points, close calls and heartbreak that made round six.
Top Performer - Thierry Neuville
Reaching the finish of the Safari Rally was an achievement in its own right, such was the challenge Kenya threw at the crews brave enough to tackle it. In the end only five WRC drivers completed the full distance such was the difficulty of the new shortened but just as extreme Safari Rally.
While Toyota’s Sebastian Ogier produced yet another masterclass to recover from two and half minutes down on Friday after a suspension issue to win the event, he is not our top performer but a very close second.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville takes the gong simply because he dominated the event from the first special stage until the first test on Sunday morning when his right-rear damper exploded through no fault of his own, robbing him a deserved win.
Neuville was in a class of his own on Friday and Saturday before Hyundai’s achilles heel in the form of fragile suspension struck again for the third event in a row. Throwing caution to the wind through the infamous 32.6km Kedong stage was hugely impressive as he showed no fear navigating rough gravel and treacherous sand, accompanied by Kenya’s famous wildlife. Even a brush with a giraffe and dazzle of zebras, (yes that’s right, that is the collective), did not deter the fast yet fearless Belgian.
A ballsy drive through a thunderstorm that wreaked havoc on the final stage on Saturday was heroic. Thinking he had lost his lead while his rivals had more favourable weather conditions, Neuville was determined, taking plenty of risks and ultimately ended up extending his advantage to almost a minute.
While Neuville takes out our top award, honourable mentions should go to Ogier as mentioned above and team-mate Takamoto Katsuta, who scored his maiden WRC podium in second and, incredibly, the Japanese driver is the only one to finish inside the top six at all events this year.
Meanwhile, M-Sport deserves huge credit for scoring its best team result of the year with Gus Greensmith fourth and Adrien Fourmaux fifth, despite the team operating a skeleton on-the-ground staff due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Rally organisers and the hoards of local spectators should also pat themselves on the back for making the Safari’s return a special one.
The crashed Hyundai i20 of Thierry Neuville
Photo by: WRC Live
Moment of Heartbreak
Many crews suffered heartbreak but none more so than those driving Hyundais. All four WRC entries encountered trouble whether it was through driver error or reliability.
Neuville suffered the most heartbreaking moment having driven superbly for three of the four days before suspension failure took a likely first win since January 2020 away from him with only four stages remaining.
To his credit the Belgian took the retirement in relatively good grace, saying, “It is difficult but I have to stay with the team. We are all fighting hard and we definitely are going to try and find some solution to that problem and fight harder towards the end of the year.”
Meanwhile, Hyundai boss Andrea Adamo cut a devastated figure and was probably the unhappiest man in Nairobi as he now looks for answers to “something the team is doing wrong”.
“We have the same parts as we used last year, in events such as Turkey and Sardinia; we have improved the performance, but we are lacking in reliability, and we need to understand why. It’s simply unacceptable,” said Adamo.
Unfortunately for Hyundai, Dani Sordo was forced to retire on Friday after a wild spin caused by a stone breaking a suspension arm, while Oliver Solberg, on his full WRC gravel debut, was out just four stages in after a damaging his chassis in a sizeable collision with a bank.
Team-mate Ott Tanak also was struck by a puncture on Friday before his heated windscreen failed during the rain-affected game of roulette on Saturday evening that forced him to lose a minute getting out of his car to clear the windscreen.
Toyota's Kalle Rovanpera stuck in a rut
Photo by: WRC Live
Toyota also suffered heartbreak through Kalle Rovanpera who was sitting second when Kenya’s nasty fesh-fesh sand struck, burying his car’s axles. With Rovanpera literarily stuck in a rut a tow truck was required to free the Finn, which effectively ended his victory charge.
“In the last stage just after the start, a lot of dust came up from the ground and I couldn’t see anything, so I had to slow down, and then we got stuck in the ruts,” said Rovanpera.
Neuville comes close to a Giraffe
Photo by: WRC Live
When you are driving in - let’s face it - the largest Safari park on earth close calls with wildlife were inevitable despite the efforts taken by rally organisers.
Organisers sent a helicopter followed by a train of vehicles to ensure stages were clear of animals given this year’s event saw crews without the helicopter spotters and bull-bars on the cars of previous Safari rallies due to cost-saving measures.
Even before the rally began on the recce the wildlife was making itself known to the drivers as Sordo found out.
“I know they [monkeys] like bananas,” he said. “I had some in the car, so I thought I would give to them. I got out and gave to one, but then they were all coming to my hand for more bananas. One of them put it on the top of my car – I was still driving and he was still on the top of the car.
“I said, ‘Hey, come on, you need to get out now!’ It was very funny and it’s really something to see these animals in the recce.”
You can prepare pacenotes on the recce but factoring a giraffe into your notes is pretty tough as Neuville found out.
“The pacenotes were spot on and I was able to go fast. The only thing which were not in my notes were the giraffes. I was a bit scared that it was going to cross just when we arrived but at the end it went well and the picture looks nice,” said Neuville.
Gus Greensmith, Stuart Loudon, M-Sport Ford WRT Ford Fiesta WRC
Photo by: M-Sport
Dazzles of zebras provided literal zebra crossings at times requiring drivers to be on their toes and ready to tap on the anchors at any moment - just ask Ogier and Katsuta.
"I tried to drive clean,” said Ogier, who scored two stage wins as he began to reel in Katsuta and Tanak. “I had a lot of animals in the stage and I had to brake a lot for zebras and gazelles.”
Katsuta added: “I lost quite a lot of time to zebras, but it was nice to see them on the stage. It’s a good safari park.”
The save of the rally belonged to Fourmaux as he wrestled his M-Sport Ford Fiesta out of a wild moment that could have been disastrous.
Kenya is a rally photographer’s dream given its unique backdrop. Here are our top four hot shots.
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Adrien Fourmaux, Renaud Jamoul, M-Sport Ford WRT Ford Fiesta WRC
Photo by: M-Sport
Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota Yaris WRC
Photo by: Toyota Racing
Thierry Neuville, Martijn Wydaeghe, Hyundai Motorsport Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
Photo by: Fabien Dufour / Hyundai Motorsport
Plenty of contenders for this, but the rally organisers deserve a bit of credit for this gem - as well as our own social media team.
Also, Fourmaux’s social media work provided entertainment as he jousted with Ogier in search of scoring a maiden first WRC stage win.
That memorable moment in any young WRC driver’s career did eventually arrive on stage 16.
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