Toyota, who is renowned for its World Rally Championship Safari Rally victories, won the 2021 edition yet again. Simultaneously, Sebastien Ogier/ Julien Ingrassia also took their fourth victory of the season as their biggest title rivals retired. Takamoto Katsuta / Dan Barritt also claimed their first ever podium with Toyota Gazoo Racing, whilst rally favorite, Thierry Neuville / Martin Wydaeghe again found themselves with bad luck, having to retire from the lead.
While the 2021 edition might have been shorter than the traditional 100km marathons, it proved to be as (if not more) entertaining.
After a 19-year hiatus, the Safari Rally once again welcomed the return of the WRC to the African continent and while it was only 318km in total length, it took spectators and internet streamers alike through a rollercoaster of emotions. Onkar Rai, a previous Safari winner and local was quick to name the 2021 edition as one of his biggest challenges to date.
Kenya, which is positioned right on the equator, once again surprised the drivers with not only spectacular sceneries, but also changing and difficult weather patterns, wildlife on stages, as well as ever-changing road surfaces. In contrast to other WRC rounds, the Safari Rally saw competitors racing at 180km/h, whilst having to crawl over rocky sections at 20km/h less than a kilometre away.
Ogier was quickest during the shakedown as well as the head-to-head stage on Thursday; and although Toyota claimed a 1-2-3 with Elfyn Evans and Kalli Rovanperä, the 7-time WRC champion and current leader was quick to mention that it would be the smartest and most cautious driver who would take victory, rather than the outright fastest.
Ironically, Ogier only retook the rally lead, with one stage to go on Sunday. This, after Neuville looked very strong in the lead, all weekend long. The Belgian not only took the rally lead early on Friday, but fought off a very hard chasing Rovanperä to keep the lead with six stages to go until a damper on his Hyundai broke on Sunday’s opening stage.
The first stage on Friday proved to be a game changer as it not only sent Evans and Sordo into retirement, but also caught Ogier off guard, meaning that he had to race the third stage somewhat slower in order to keep the suspension intact.
Rovanperä, with a rich family history at the Safari Rally, quickly clawed his way into second, and fought hard against Neuville to take the rally lead briefly on stage 5. Whilst Neuville fought back on the next stage, the irritable fesh-fesh sands sent Rovanperä into retirement on stage 7.
Bothe Neuville and Ogier would be in the perfect position on Saturday, although the latter had a 2-minute deficit to claw back on Neuville, Tänak and Katsuta in front of him. With Sordo and Evans restarting under Super Rally regulations, the duo had to open the roads, feeding back information to their leading teammates ahead of their stage starts.
This meant that most of the Saturday stages saw a fairly procedural running order with minimal mistakes. It was set to be a fairly “boring” day up until the last stage. With Sordo, Evans and the two M-Sport Ford’s already through the test, a heavy thunderstorm broke out. Whilst Ogier was caught up in this, the Frenchman received less of the worst.
Running just after him on the road, Tänak had to stop mid stage to demystify his windscreen, losing two minutes and his position to Ogier in the process. Katsuta also lost time, but it was Neuville, who lost 34 seconds in the process.
Yet, with a commanding lead, Neuville looked set to turn around his torrid season thus far, but a rear broken damper on his Hyundai would decide otherwise. The Belgian was ruled into retirement, unable to even compete for Power Stage points.
This meant that the young Japanese driver, Katsuta now took the rally lead with only 4.6 seconds in hand over Ogier. The latter though, had much more experience and a better tyre choice for the day. Katsuta held his own and fought back Ogier as hard as he could, but with one stage remaining, Ogier took the rally lead.
On the final PowerStage, no one could hold back the chasing Tänak, who took the maximum 5-points for recording the fastest stage time. Starting 8.6 seconds adrift, Katsuta, however, lost even more time to Ogier as the Frenchman took his forth 2021 victory by a mere 22 seconds.
The 2021 Kenyan Safari Rally was by no means a boring affair and delivered precisely what rally fans around the world wanted.
The Safari Rally is certainly back in full force.
Text: Franco Theron
Pictures: Red Bull Content Pool