NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 03 – The WRC Safari Rally might be behind us, but we can’t help but to look behind us and evaluate the defining moments that either made or broke the drivers’ chances of a winning.
We start off with the rain in Sleeping Warrior on (Saturday) day three of the rally action that gave Frenchman Thierry Neuville of Hyundai a 20 second advantage. He had led the rally since Friday afternoon and was sure to win the WRC Safari Rally.
However, the Safari ‘gods” had a totally different idea. He limped through this last stage with an 11.7 seconds lead. He had some damage on his rear wheel and thought it was something that he could fix.
What he thought was a puncture ended up being the shock mount giving way and the vehicle sinking from the rear right back. Neuville made it to the end of the section but was forced to bow out.
His frustration was clearly visible as he kicked the tyre and cursed out loud. The damage was irreparable. He was forced out of the rally that he was winning… Being robbed of a win is an understatement.
Andrea Adamo, the Hyundai Team Principle said “The set up they were using for the Hyundai was similar to what they used in the rally of Turkey and Sardinia. Meaning that we are doing something wrong.”
The word in rally streets say that the “The Hyundai i20 team at the Safari Rally are concerned about the reliability of the rear suspension and damper that snapped on Neuville’s car costing him his win. This is the third rally that this has happened.”
In a true tale about how a good set of tires can make a difference, after the third day of rally action. Takamoto Katsuta of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team said, “Seb (Sebastian) Ogier has better tires than me, he is the Driver I am watching out for.”
World champion Ogier knew he had better tires than Katsuta and planned to turn that to his advantage. That he did and won the event though without robbing his teammate of a podium finish.
Throughout the rally, Katsuta gained from his consistency but almost loses his podium position to Ogier after taking the lead after Neuville crashed out. He however managed to keep Ott Tanak at bay to clinch second place and gain his first podium finish.
A win for Katsuta was poised to be the best moment in Japanese motorsports and would have been the perfect gift from him to his people ahead of the Olympics but that’s not what the Safari Rally is all about. After the two morning stages on Sunday the last day of rallying, Takamoto was in the lead after Neuville retired.
Kale Rovanpera attempted a sensible entry into the rally. He was in the lead that he soon lost and, in his attempt, to capture his lead from Neuville, his Toyota Yaris got buried in the deep fine dust that by now had deep ruts. That ended his Friday action.
Elfyn Evans had several corners to go, but as he tackled the third stage of the day the Welshman’s Toyota Gazoo, hit a rock by the side of the road and shattered part of the suspension. Toyota retired him for the day. His navigator Scott Martin went on to move the rock to avoid a teammate ploughing into it and suffering the same fate.
In Kedong, Dani Sordo was doing impressingly well. The Hyundai i20 with its flashing headlights assumingly to chase off any Zebras on the route. He hit a rock went into a ditch and lost his front right wheel. The retirement from the day’s action cost him the points he needed to get a podium finish.
At this point it is important to note that with major events like the ARC and WRC, drivers are allowed to retire on one day, repair their cars and come back the following day through something they call “Super Rally.”
Adrien Fourmaux was showing fine form. He was oozing with confidence, driving better than he ever has. The clouds in the Sleeping Warrior Stage could hardly hold their excitement and opted to hold down the dust for the rally drivers.
Guss Greensmith was one casualty who lost time as the once dusty roads turned slippery as the famous black cotton soil became a slippery slope. He slid of the route at a corner and lost 35 seconds and needed his navigator to show him the way out.
He was in 5th place. Tanak was hardest hit as he lost 2 minutes in the same stage. He lost his 3rd place in this stage. The late showers were a blessing and a curse to many.
Ogier, benefitted from the rains as he overtook Tanak and was able to put in some of the best times for the Sleeping Warrior Stage. Takamoto gained a personal best in this stage.
Despite the slippery stage, veering of the road at the slippery and tight corners he hit highs of 193Km/h.
Ogier said “Toyota are known to be a super fair team that does not care for any team order.
Takamoto said “Seb (Ogier) has better tires than me. And I have to think of that also. If he is going very well, then I let him go. Because you can damage the car in the process. I need to find a balance. It Is never easy.”
Katsuta had earlier on confided in his team that he had targeted the Finland and Estonia rallies to give them a podium finish at the World Rally Championships.
He managed to achieve that earlier than expected here in Kenya. According to the WRC website, Ogier put off his retirement plans so that he could come to Kenya and add the WRC Safari Rally trophy to his overflowing trophy cabinet.
He finally added the first win from the first WRC Safari Rally in over 19 years on his list of achievements. He claimed his 4th win in 6 rallies so far this season.
Katsuta got his first ever podium place making it a 1 and 2 positions for Toyota. Tanak took third in his Hyundai while Greensmith and Fourmaux took 4th and 5th in the M- Sport Fords.