GRR

Four talking points from a dusty Safari rally

27th June 2022
Damien Smith

Something special is happening in the World Rally Championship this year. At just 21 years old, Kalle Rovanperä is emerging as the new hero of the special stages, with performances all too reminiscent of the great Sébastiens, Loeb and Ogier, in their pomp. The Finn starred again last weekend with a dominant victory on the most gruelling and difficult event of them all, the Safari Rally in Kenya.

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Rovanperä’s masterclass

There were a number of things that made this performance special. First, Rovanperä as championship leader was starting first on the road on Friday, which is supposed to be a huge disadvantage because the lead car becomes a road sweeper for the rest. On the Safari deep, soft sand only increased the challenge, but it didn’t seem to bog Rovanperä down. He finished the first day with a 14.6s lead over Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans, which was a remarkable turnaround given that he nearly rolled out of the opening Thursday Super Special and picked up a puncture.

Welshman Evans, to his credit, provided a stern test to Rovanperä’s dominance on Saturday, Kalle feeling off-colour in the morning. But torrential rain then hit the event and the leader put in a masterful display in the conditions, opening up a lead of more than 40 seconds by the end of the second day. From there, it was simply a case of managing his advantage over the final leg on Sunday. Rovanperä’s final margin of victory was 52.8s, ahead of Evans.

The win is his fourth in six rounds and he now holds a massive 65-point advantage over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville in the WRC standings. There’s been little doubt for a while that, barring any major developments, the son of ex-WRC ace Harri Rovanperä will win his first world championship title this season. The only question now is, how many will he go on to win? At his age, the potential is all too obvious.

Rovanperä’s masterclass

There were a number of things that made this performance special. First, Rovanperä as championship leader was starting first on the road on Friday, which is supposed to be a huge disadvantage because the lead car becomes a road sweeper for the rest. On the Safari deep, soft sand only increased the challenge, but it didn’t seem to bog Rovanperä down. He finished the first day with a 14.6s lead over Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans, which was a remarkable turnaround given that he nearly rolled out of the opening Thursday Super Special and picked up a puncture.

Welshman Evans, to his credit, provided a stern test to Rovanperä’s dominance on Saturday, Kalle feeling off colour in the morning. But torrential rain then hit the event and the leader put in a masterful display in the conditions, opening up a lead of more than 40 seconds by the end of the second day. From there, it was simply a case of managing his advantage over the final leg on Sunday. Rovanperä’s final margin of victory was 52.8s, ahead of Evans.

The win is his fourth in six rounds and he now holds a massive 65-point advantage over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville in the WRC standings. There’s been little doubt for a while that, barring any major developments, the son of ex-WRC ace Harri Rovanperä will win his first world championship title this season. The only question now is, how many will he go on to win? At his age, the potential is all too obvious.

Historic weekend for Toyota

Beyond Rovanperä’s success, the 2022 Safari was also a landmark for Toyota. The Japanese manufacturer claimed a remarkable 1-2-3-4 with its Yaris GR Rally1, its first such result since 1993 when Juha Kankkunen led four Celicas in the same event. 

Behind Rovanperä and Evans, Takamoto Katsuta claimed his first WRC podium since finishing second on the Safari last year. Reigning eight-time champion Ogier returned to the fray during what is a part-season for him on the WRC to finish fourth. The Frenchman did lead the early stages, only for a puncture to cost him more than two minutes, and he never truly recovered from that setback. Still, he completed an impressive Toyota train that shone brightly in stark contrast to the fortunes of the other Rally1 manufacturers.

Tough times for Hyundai and M-Sport

The WRC’s other two makes both endured nightmare Safaris this year. That only six of the 12 top-class hybrid entries completed the full distance tells a big part of the story, of an event that tested crews to the extreme. Heavy dust-choked drivers and co-drivers and gave the new breed of rally cars their biggest test yet.

Neuville finished a best-of-the-rest fifth despite being forced to retire on Saturday and only returning thanks to the WRC’s restart rules. He did at least claim the five bonus points on offer for winning the Power Stage finale. As for Sardinia winner Ott Tänak, he was out with transmission troubles and power steering failure.

For M-Sport’s Ford Pumas, the Safari was even worse. All four cars retired from the rally. Irishman Craig Breen suffered a broken steering arm, but again under restart rules returned to at least claim sixth place. But Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux were in the doghouse for their efforts. Team boss Malcolm Wilson told them both to help the mechanics fix their cars to help them restart, which had to be a humbling experience. Greensmith and his co-driver Jonas Andersson had been forced to kick out their windscreen to escape from their crashed Puma on Saturday morning, with the British driver critical of a lack of help from marshals in the wake of the incident.

Nine-time WRC king Loeb returned to the Safari during his welcome cameo season for M-Sport. But the Monte-Carlo Rally winner was out of luck on this occasion as an engine fire on Friday ruined his rally. He soldiered on, again under restart rules, to finish eighth.

Wahome makes history

Finally word to 26-year-old Kenyan Maxine Wahome. She became the first woman to win a WRC3 round as she drove to 16th overall, just one place behind Greensmith’s Rally1 entry. As traditionally the toughest rally on the schedule, the Safari often tends to throw up big results and landmark stories. The 2022 edition was no exception.

Lead image courtesy of Motorsport Images

  • WRC

  • WRC 2022

  • Rally1

  • Toyota

  • Kalle Rovanpera

  • Ott Tanak

  • Maxine Wahome

  • Elfyn Evans

  • Thierry Neuville

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