NAIROBI (KENYA): The French crew of Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia emerged unscathed from a gripping final morning’s action to secure victory in Safari Rally Kenya and increase their leads in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Third overall at the start of the day, the Toyota Yaris WRC driver moved up to second when Thierry Neuville damaged his Hyundai’s rear suspension on the opening stage. Ogier then displaced Toyota team-mate Takamoto Katsuta on the penultimate special and went on to record victory by the margin of 21.8 seconds.
“One out of one (Safari) is not so bad,” said Ogier, who now leads the Drivers’ Championship by 34 points after his fourth win of the season. “We had amazing support from the people. It has been incredible. The people have been cheering for us. It is a beautiful country. It is a great win for us. After the trouble on Friday we had a good weekend. Well done also to Taka. It was not easy to catch him.”
The victory was Toyota’s first on the Safari since Japanese driver Yoshio Fujimoto and Swedish co-driver Arne Hertz won the 43rd Safari in 1995 in a Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD. It was the Japanese manufacturer’s ninth in total after winning for the first time in Kenya with the late Björn Waldegård and fellow Swede Hans Thorszelius in 1984.
Safari success marked Ogier’s 53rd WRC win as he continues to close in on fellow Frenchman Sébastien Loeb’s record 79 successes.
Partnered by Daniel Barritt, Katsuta’s second place marked a career best finish and first ever WRC podium for the young Japanese talent. “It’s feeling very good,” said Katsuta. “It has been a very long weekend. Everybody had some problems but we survived.”
The Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team suffered agony and disappointment for the third consecutive rally. After Ott Tänak’s woes in Portugal and Sardinia, it was Thierry Neuville’s turn to suffer the same cruel twist of fate in Kenya.
The Belgian had dominated the Safari for two days and looked set to cruise to the finish and take the win until a rear-right damper exploded on the first stage of the morning and he was not able to continue. It was a bitter blow to the Belgian’s title challenge and a major setback for the team in the battle with Toyota for the Manufacturers’ title. They now trail their rivals by 59 points.
“Basically we came to a very slow left-right corner and something broke on the car,” said Neuville. “We saw that the damper exploded and we had to retire there. It is a big disappointment, not only for me but for the whole team. It’s a tough time after three rallies in a row retiring from the lead.”
Ott Tänak’s third place was scant consolation for the effort that the team had put in over the weekend. But the Estonian claimed five maximum bonus points for winning the Power Stage and closed to within eight points of third-placed Neuville in the title race.
The Safari was a success for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team in the absence of senior management because of the UK’s Covid quarantine rules for arrivals from Kenya.
Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith were closely matched throughout the event, but a career-first fastest stage time and a pacey morning enabled Fourmaux to overhaul his English team-mate to secure a personal best fourth position. The ever-improving Greensmith finished fifth.
Kalle Rovanperä won two stages and led the rally outright after the fifth one, but the Finn suffered his very own disappointment on Friday afternoon and spent the rest of the weekend avoiding trouble to give himself a chance to gain Power Stage points. He finished sixth overall and second in the Power Stage with his Toyota.
Throughout WRC history, rallies with a high rate of attrition – like the Safari and the Ivory Coast – enabled amateur drivers to score WRC points for impressive performances.
This year’s returning African classic was no exception and Kenyan driver Onkar Rai finished a superb seventh overall. The Volkswagen Polo GTi driver won the WRC3 category and devoted the victory to his brother Tejveer, who crashed heavily and sustained a spinal injury on Friday.
“It’s amazing,” said an overwhelmed Rai at the finish. “I hope he’s watching (brother). It was a really hard drive and I am so happy that Kenya has got it back (WRC).”
Fellow countryman Karen Patel and five-time Safari winner Carl Tundo were Rai’s closest challengers and crossed the finish line in eighth and ninth places.
After losing any chance of taking a win on Friday, title contender Elfyn Evans fought back from the lower reaches of the top 20 to finish in 10th place and collect a solitary WRC point to add to the three he scored on the final Power Stage. He now trails team-mate Ogier by 34 points in the Drivers’ Championship.
Sunday – as it happened
Evans was handed road-sweeping duties on the first pass through the 11.33km of the narrow and twisty Loldia stage and completed in 7min 49.4sec.
Dani Sordo had been 20 minutes late leaving service because of a reported fuel pressure issue and then clocked in 10 minutes early to the stage start and lined up in third place behind Lorenzo Bertelli with 13min 20sec of additional time penalties to his name.
Fourmaux and Greensmith were separated by just 12 seconds at the start of the day and locked in a tussle for fifth place. The Frenchman threw caution to the wind to post a time of 7min 41.2sec and reduced his M-Sport team-mate’s advantage to just six seconds.
Ogier opted for four soft tyres in his quest to hunt down Katsuta and snatch second place and the Japanese saw his 18.1-second cushion whittled down to 4.6 seconds when the seven-time World Champion carded the fastest time of 7min 37.1sec.
Neuville struggled through the stage with right-rear suspension damage and haemorrhaged 59.2 seconds to the Frenchman. But the Belgian somehow managed to hold on to a lead of 11.7 seconds after a stunning development at the start of the final morning.
The first pass through Hell’s Gate was shortened to 5.63km by rally officials after regrading and repair work. Crews were then permitted to recce the repaired section for the subsequent Wolf Power Stage after the stage finish.
Hyundai confirmed that Neuville would not be able to continue after breaking a rear damper. The Belgian’s demise lifted Katsuta into the outright lead, but he was running on a far from ideal tyre option and was coming under severe pressure from Ogier.
Evans was closing in on 10th overall and he carded the fastest time of 3min 14.3sec to move within seven seconds of Lorenzo Bertelli.
Fourmaux pinched another tenth of a second from Greensmith, who summed up his thoughts: “It’s hard to put into words this rally. One minute it’s fine and then it’s going end-over-end – metaphorically!”
Ogier continued to reel in Katsuta and his team-mate’s lead was reduced to 0.8 seconds heading to a single pass through the abrasive Malewa (9.71km) stage. But Katsuta led a WRC rally for the first time with three stages to go.
Malewa may have been a short stage but it was rough and demanding. Evans managed to pass Bertelli and claim 10th place and a potential WRC point with a time of 7min 21.9sec.
An inspired Fourmaux delivered a scintillating time of 7min 01.1sec to go 15.8 seconds quicker than Sordo and his efforts were rewarded when he displaced Greensmith to take fifth place by 2.3 seconds. He also confirmed a first personal stage win in the WRC.
Ogier erred on the side of caution to preserve his soft compound tyres and moved into a tie for the outright lead after beating Katsuta by 0.8 seconds. The pair headed to the re-run of Loldia tied to the fraction of a second to set up a grandstand finale in Kenya.
Evans beat his opening run by two seconds to consolidate 10th place and Fourmaux continued to push hard and extended his advantage over Greensmith to 4.7 seconds in the fight for fourth overall. The Frenchman was 8.5 seconds faster than Evans and second quickest on the stage.
Ogier was quickest and managed to snatch the outright lead for the first time since the super special on Thursday afternoon. He headed to the final special with an 8.3-second cushion over Katsuta, with Tänak a distant third.
Attention turned to the Wolf Power Stage and the second run through the regraded Hell’s Gate (10.56km) with crucial bonus points at stake for the fastest five drivers.
After the Kenyan trio of Rai, Patel and Tundo had confirmed the top three places in WRC3, Sordo laid down the Power Stage gauntlet with a run of 6min 17.517sec but a flying Evans was 9.135 seconds faster than the Spaniard.
Rovanperä pushed hard and managed to sneak inside Evans’s target by 1.183 seconds with a new fastest time of 6min 07.199sec. Fourmaux and Greensmith were unable to match the Finn’s time but confirmed two solid finishes for the M-Sport team.
Tänak was desperate for Power Stage points and the Estonian managed to beat the benchmark by 0.734 seconds to snatch the fastest time with Ogier and Katsuta still to run. The Japanese confirmed a career-best WRC finish but was not able to match the target time.
That left the stage free for Ogier but the Frenchman was more concerned with securing a first Safari win and he finished the Power Stage in fourth place to seal outright victory by the margin of 21.8 seconds.
2021 Safari Rally Kenya – positions after SS18 (@14.35hrs):
1. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 18min 11.3sec
2. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 18min 33.1sec
3. Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 3hr 19min 20.8sec
4. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)/Renaud Jamoul (BEL) Ford Fiesta WRC 3hr 19min 56.0sec
5. Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC 3hr 20min 05.9sec
6. Kalle Rovanperä (FIN)/Jonne Halttunen (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC 3hr 29min 04.7sec
7. Onkar Rai (KEN)/Drew Sturrock (GBR) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC3) 3hr 47min 37.7sec
8. Karen Patel (KEN)/Tauseef Khan (KEN) Ford Fiesta (WRC3) 3hr 51min 41.7sec
9. Carl Tundo (KEN)/Timothy Jessop (KEN) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC3) 3hr 54min 52.0sec
10. Elfyn Evans (GBR)/Scott Martin (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 4hr 07min 34.0sec
11. Lorenzo Bertelli (ITA)/Simone Scattolin (ITA) Ford Fiesta WRC 4hr 08min 28.8sec
2021 FIA World Rally Championship for Drivers – positions after round 6 (unofficial):
1. Sébastien Ogier (FRA) 133pts
2. Elfyn Evans (GBR) 99pts
3. Thierry Neuville (BEL) 77pts
4. Ott Tänak (EST) 69pts
5. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN) 66pts etc
SS1 Sébastien Ogier
SS2-4 Thierry Neuville
SS5 Kalle Rovanperä
SS6-14 Thierry Neuville
SS15 Takamoto Katsuta
SS16 Takamoto Katsuta/Sébastien Ogier
SS17-18 Sébastien Ogier
SS1 Sébastien Ogier
SS2 Thierry Neuville
SS3 Thierry Neuville
SS4 Kalle Rovanperä
SS5 Kalle Rovanperä
SS6 Thierry Neuville
SS7 Sébastien Ogier /Takamoto Katsuta
SS8 Thierry Neuville
SS9 Sébastien Ogier
SS10 Sébastien Ogier
SS11 Sébastien Ogier
SS12 Ott Tänak
SS13 Dani Sordo
SS14 Sébastien Ogier
SS15 Elfyn Evans
SS16 Adrien Fourmaux
SS17 Sébastien Ogier
SS18 Ott Tänak