Estonian Ott Tänak got his quest for a maiden African victory off to a flying start with a win on the opening stage of the 2023 WRC Safari Rally Kenya on Thursday.
The 2019 World Rally Champion beat Frenchman Sebastien Ogier by a mere 0.1 seconds through the scintillating 4.84-kilometre speed-test at Kasarani’s Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi, traditionally the designated viewing point for Nairobi-based spectators.
Defending Safari champion Kalle Rovanpera came through the twin-track test 2.4 seconds behind the leader, incidentally on the same stage where he almost rolled his GR Yaris Rally1 hybrid marque last year.
Tänak is looking to break Toyota’s stranglehold of success in Kenya where his bid for the coveted Safari title remains elusive on two attempts since his 2021 debut.
But the Estonian reiterated he’ll be treading carefully on the unpredictable Kenyan “fesh fesh” stages which will take centre stage in the Great Rift Valley segment of the 1,190-kilometre route course, though showers continue to threaten around rally routes, throwing in a blanket of unpredictability.
“We need to make sure we won’t incur any mechanical setbacks with the tough conditions and then it’s up to us to give our best performance,” quipped Tänak who recently came face to face with Kenya’s celebrated world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge at the double Olympic marathon champion and world record holder’s training camp in Kaptagat.
Earlier, the living legends of Safari’s glorious decades revved-up the platinum jubilee celebrations in style at the central Uhuru Park where the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya, Rigathi Gachagua, flagged off the cars.
Celebrated drivers, co-drivers and some notable Safari personalities of yore were among those in attendance during the ceremonial start.
Five-times ARC Safari Rally Champion Carl “Flash” Tundo – who doubles up as Chairman of the 2023 WRC Safari rally Kenya Organizing Committee and a WRC2 entrant – noted that the platinum jubilee anniversary will forever capture the memories of myriad enthusiasts across the globe.
Tundo, who went first off Uhuru Park’s ramp at 12:45, remarked: “The Safari has tested the skills of the world’s most decorated drivers and we are hoping that, this year, the challenge will be even tougher. Let’s make Safari great on its platinum jubilee anniversary.”
The Ceremonial Start paraded some of Kenya’s legends of the fabled sport including the trailblazing all-female crew of Ann Taeith and Sylvia King who competed in the 1980s and 90s.
Taieth and Sylvia entered their names in the annals of rallying history as the first ever women to win a round of the Kenya National Rally Championship in 1984.
Also in attendance were the former Managing Director of the WRC Promoter, Oliver Ciesla, his successor Jona Siebel, Kenya’s 1988 Safari Group N Champion Jim Kahumbura, who is also Event Director, and Surinder Thatthi, an African Rally Championship (ARC) championship-winning co-driver with the late Zambia’s eight-time drivers’ champion Satwant Singh.
Phineas Kimathi, the CEO Of WRC Safari Rally said: “May I take this opportunity to salute the men and women who have been part of these momentous years of Safari. The living and departed legends truly made this country proud.”
Sports Cabinet Secretary Ababu Namwamba thanked Ciesla for his efforts to return the Safari back to the 13-leg FIA calendar.
“Safari is actually 20 years older than the WRC, which beams enormous socio-economic benefits for our country, from tourism and trade to the revolutionary agenda of sport for climate action.”
A driver’s autograph signing session introduced by the WRC on the outskirts of Naivasha town was an instant hit with local fans filling up the mall location to mingle with the drivers who made a brief stop before heading to the Service Park a few kilometres away.
Day One leaderboard – Kasarani SSS (4.84km):
1. (#8) Tänak Ott – Järveoja Martin (Ford Puma Rally1 ) 3:14.3;
2. (#17) Ogier Sébastien – Landais V. (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 3:14.4 /+0.1;
3. (#69) Rovanperä Kalle – Halttunen J. (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 3:16.7 /+2.4;
4. (#11) Neuville Thierry – Wydaeghe M. Hyundai i20 N Rally10 3:17.0/+2.7;
5. (#33) Evans Elfyn – Martin Scott (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)3:17.6/+3.3
6. (#4) Lappi Esapekka – Ferm Janne (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) 3:18.3/+4.0;
7. (#18) Katsuta Takamoto – Johnston Aaron (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 3:19.4 +5.1;
8. (#7) Loubet Pierre-Louis – Gilsoul N. (Ford Puma Rally1) 3:22.3/+8.0;
9. (#20) Solberg Oliver – Edmondson E. (Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo) 3:24.0 +9.7
10. (#9) Serderidis Jourdan – Malfoy Andy (Ford Puma Rally1) 3:25.6/+11.3.