While New Zealand rally star, Hayden Paddon, has headed to Europe to begin his WRC campaign, the WRC circus has headed south.
Round six of the World Rally Championship takes place this weekend in the East African country of Kenya for what is perhaps the toughest round of the season.
After a long absence, the series returned to Kenya last year and provided the usual unpredictability and unexpected results, highlighted by Takamoto Katsuta’s second placing for Toyota.
Eleven Rally1 hybrid cars from the three manufacturers will face the start on Thursday, with much of the interest around the returning Sebastiens.
With 17 world titles between them, messers Loeb and Ogier are again expected to be right at the pointy end of the field.
Ogier used his years of experience and guile to take a brilliant victory for Toyota last year on Safari, but Loeb hasn’t competed in Africa for 20 years, when he finished fifth in 2002.
Nevertheless, both drivers are at the top of most pundits’ tips this weekend, if only for their driving smarts, if not for their speed behind the wheel.
“We saw that it can be a very tough rally; I think nearly everybody had an issue at some point and we came back from over two minutes down to win,” Ogier said this week..
“So it’s definitely a rally where you have to never give up, and this year with the cars still being so new, we might have to be even more clever than before.”
After his dominant victory last time out in Sardinia, I’m predicting back-to-back wins for Ott Tanak and the rapidly improving Hyundai i20.
We now know that the Hyundai is capable of winning rallies, and with Tanak starting to get his confidence back, he’ll be a hard man to beat. He finished third here last year.
“Last year Safari Rally Kenya was an incredible adventure, but also quite a big challenge,” the Estonian explained.
“We thought it to be a very demanding event and it was, with rough roads and difficult terrain such as soft sand. It was also technically challenging, and we expect it to be the same this time.”
Team-mate, Thierry Neuville, led for a time in Kenya last year, but broke his car. He’ll be looking for better things this year as he tries desperately to keep the title hope alive.
The third Hyundai has been entrusted to youngster Oliver Solberg, who will also want to make up for last year’s Safari Rally when he tore a wheel off his car on the first day.
Toyota will again be the strongest team, with Ogier supported (!) by runaway WRC leader Kalle Rovanpera, perennial runner-up Elfyn Evans, and the aforementioned Katsuta.
This will be a bit tougher for M-Sport, although their car could be arguably the best suited to the rough African roads.
M-Sport’s cars have a history of winning on the world’s roughest rallies, which could well be in Safari debutante Craig Breen’s favour.
“The Safari Rally is an incredibly prestigious and historic event that I’ve watched many times on the TV as a kid, so I cannot wait to see what it is all about,” Breen said.
His team-mates, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux, performed exceptionally on this rally last year and could challenge for podium finishes, given the expected attrition rate over the 19 stages and 363km of competitive driving.
It’s also a massive challenge for the teams, let alone the drivers, as Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala explains.
“It’s more about endurance than outright speed. At one stage last year it looked like it would be difficult for us to even be on the podium and in the end we finished one-two.
“So again this year we need to be prepared for anything to happen, and it will be another big test for the Rally1 cars.”
Hyundai’s Julien Moncet agrees: “Safari Rally Kenya is a very different type of gravel event; it is one of the most treacherous rallies on the calendar.
“The stages are relentless and simply finishing the event is an achievement. However, we head there with confidence in our car, our crews, and our entire team. The target is to maintain the standards we have set in the last few rounds and once again fight for the win.”
One of the most iconic rallies on the World Rally Championship calendar has earned its recall to the series, and the 2022 edition promises to be another classic.
There is also a Kiwi flavour to this weekend’s Safari Rally, with experienced co-driver, Malcolm Read, working for M-Sport. He is in charge of the team’s recce vehicles and coordination.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Hayden Paddon and John Kennard will get their Euro adventure started with entry in this weekend’s Rally di Alba in Italy.
They’ll drive an old Hyundai i20 R5 as they contest their first tarmac rally in five years, before stepping up to their new i20 N Rally2 for next weekend’s Rally Liepāja in Poland.
Paddon’s return to the WRC will be at Rally Estonia in mid-July.