The 2023 Safari Rally celebrated its 70th anniversary on a resounding note, with Frenchmen Sebastien Ogier and Vincent Landais of Toyota Gazoo Racing the victors but the biggest winners were the Kenyan people.
Ogier, who isn’t driving a full season, came home just 6.7 seconds ahead of the 22-year-old Toyota teammate Kalle Rovanpera as Toyota claimed the first four places with Elfyn Evans rounding out the podium and Takamoto Katsuta finishing in fourth.
It was the 39-year-old Ogier’s third victory from just five starts so far this season, his second in Kenya after 2021 and his 58th career win in the World Rally Championship.
Rovanpera’s second place saw him consolidate his place atop the drivers’ standings, 37 points clear of Belgium’s Thierry Neuville (Hyundai), who finished in eighth in Kenya, after round seven of 13.
Victory was far from a given, however, as Ogier clipped a tree and ripped off his car’s entire rear tailgate. He patched the gap using a bin liner to keep dust at bay.
A four-day thrilling display by Ogier through rocks, wet and dry stages of 350 kilometres of relentless driving watched by thousands of enthusiastic fans proved three things.
First, Ogier with eight world titles under his belt, is simply the best off his generation, and he has more years of driving beyond the limits at 39, an age most drivers either call it quits or their reflexes start giving away.
The Frenchman announced he was gradually pulling out of the WRC to concentrate on his family after winning his eighth World Rally Championship (WRC) in 2021 season, the same year Kenyans were treated to his sublime driving skills in a Toyota Yaris GR.
But he continued racing in select events, including the Safari Rally this year and last year.
Secondly, as it is, the WRC is shaping into a four-driver race pitting world champion Kalle Rovanpera of Toyota Gazoo Racing, M-Sport Ford driver Ott Tanak, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and of course Ogier. Rovanpera, who finished second in Kenya has 139 points followed by Neuville (102). Ogier and Tanak are tied at 97 points and Elfyn Evans in 5th with 96.
They shared stage times in the Safari, and it was unfortunate to see Tanak, winner at the Kasarani Super Special Stage suffer a series of mishaps including a puncture which extinguished his Safari Rally’s chances on Friday to suffer over 2 minutes in total cumulative which he was unable to cancel throughout the remaining days.
Thirdly, rally rules are brutal. The unseen big brother in terms of technology which tracks the competitors virtually is ruthlessly honest, and not everybody is your friend, and there is nothing like sportsmanship in motorsport. You are all fierce competitors and snitching you to gain something from you is fair game.
There is a select group of people known as stewards who hear cases of dispute in motorsports event.
They dispense instant justice in real time. They read the charge sheet, lends a sympathetic ear before passing judgement and imposing a hefty fine in form of cash denominated in Euros or worse penalties in time added to one’s total or disqualification.
Kenyan champion Karan Patel was the first culprit who was fined the equivalent of Ksh280,000 for failing to activate the green button and an Ok sign within a minute relayed the signal in real time at the Rally HQ. This is required to alert the Clerk of Course their status.
A red to indicate danger like an accident which requires the rally to be stopped like in case of a medical emergency.
Patel had stopped at Kedong stage to change a flat tyre. But the worst judgement in the Safari was imposed on Neuville who admitted walking in a restricted to remove stones which is akin to having prior knowledge, and an advantage over your competitors.
He admitted the mistake but argued that he wanted stone removed. People from the organising team reported him. He thus forfeited his two points in the Safari, for himself and his team Hyundai.
Finally, how were Kenyans the winners? Granted that the Safari’s slot in the WRC is guaranteed until 2026 does not mean that this is cast on stone. The Safari must year on end meet high standards imposed the the International Motorsport Federation (Fia).
Speaking to delegates, media, drivers, and WRC Promoter, they all agreed that the Safari still has its vintage characteristics of being unpredictable as it happened on Saturday when it rained heavily in Soysambu area rendering the high technology in Rally 1 cars hopeless.
The presence of President William Ruto and his Deputy Rigathi Gachagua at the start and finish was a stamp of approval for the Safari.