NAIROBI (KENYA) Saturday, June 26th, 2021 — The Belgian crew of Thierry Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe survived heavy rain on the last stage to extend their overall advantage to 57.4 seconds at Safari Rally Kenya on Saturday.
The Hyundai driver had managed to keep Toyota rival Takamoto Katsuta at bay over the leg’s other five stages on what had developed into a processional day for the leading crews. But the leading group were badly affected by the onset of a sudden downpour and Neuville was fortunate to escape relatively unscathed to take a good lead into the night halt.
Katsuta dropped over half a minute to seven-time World Rally Champion and team-mate Sébastien Ogier on the last special, but the Japanese retained second position by just 18.1 seconds. “It was very scary,” said Katsuta. “I never feel that kind of feeling. In the beginning it was okay and then the storm came and I could not see anything.”
Ogier won three stages and managed to pass Estonia’s Ott Tänak and snatch third place when the Hyundai driver was forced to stop in the last special and clear a misting windscreen. The delay proved costly for the 2019 World Champion and he trails Ogier by 65.7 seconds heading into the final day.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team colleagues Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux were locked in their own little tussle for much of the day. The Briton maintained his advantage to consolidate fifth place, with his French team-mate heading to the night halt 12 seconds behind in sixth.
Seventh-placed Kalle Rovanperä was too far behind the Fords to attack and comfortably ahead of the WRC3 runners. The Finn achieved his goal of finishing the day’s stages as he prepares for a push for bonus points on Sunday’s Power Stage.
Toyota’s Elfyn Evans and Hyundai’s Dani Sordo continued to climb back towards the top 10 after their retirements on Friday. Sordo benefited from missing the final stage storm to claim the fastest time.
Local driver Onkar Rai led WRC3 in a fine eighth with his Volkswagen Polo GTi. Fellow Kenyan Karen Patel and five-time Safari winner Carl Tundo rounded off the top 10.
Poland’s Daniel Chwist stopped a short distance into the ninth stage and lost his place amongst the leading WRC3 group.
Saturday – as it happened
Young Oliver Solberg and WRC2 runner Martin Prokop were unable to restart after accident damage sidelined their cars on Friday.
Dani Sordo, Elfyn Evans, Lorenzo Bertelli and Kalle Rovanperä all returned to action and were given road opening duties at the start of day two and the first pass through the 14.67km of the Elementieta stage.
Rovanperä managed to rejoin in seventh overall after his seventh stage issues in the fesh-fesh, but Bertelli (17th), Evans (19th) and Sordo (20th) were realistically too far behind to challenge for serious WRC points other than the final Power Stage.
Bertelli stalled briefly and Evans and Rovanperä set the early target of 9min 18.6sec. Greensmith increased his advantage over Fourmaux to 33.6 seconds with an impressive run of 9min 12.0sec but Neuville recorded the fastest time of 9min 01.4sec and extended his overall advantage over Katsuta to 26.3 seconds.
The Soysambu (20.33km) stage incorporated a pair of tricky water crossings and followed a very short road section. A lack of rain in the area nullified the risks associated with the water hazards, however, and a hard-charging Fourmaux clocked the early target time of 14min 16.1sec on only his third WRC event in a World Rally Car.
The Frenchman managed to claw 10.3 seconds back from team-mate Greensmith, as Ogier carded the quickest time of 14min 11.9sec and closed to within 43.5 seconds of Tänak in the battle for third place.
Katsuta was forced to slow for zebra on the track, as Neuville was third quickest and extended his overall advantage over the Japanese to 28.9 seconds. Onkar Rai continued to lead the way in WRC3 in eighth overall, but Polish rival Daniel Chwist stopped after 3.4km.
The Sleeping Warrior (31.04km) stage completed the morning loop before the return to service at Navaisha. Sordo pushed harder on the faster opening kilometres and eased off over the rock-strewn final tracks to post an impressive target time of 17min 44.0sec.
Most of his rivals erred on the side of caution on the deteriorating surface and Ogier was the first to beat the Spaniard’s opening run. The Frenchman was quickest with a time of 17min 26.6sec and shaved another 5.9 seconds off Tänak in the battle for third.
Fourmaux’s roof vent came off and let in vast quantities of dust. The issue cost the Frenchman valuable seconds and he ceded another 16.1 seconds to Greensmith in the battle for fifth. Katsuta beat Neuville by 0.8 seconds and reduced the deficit to 28.1 seconds.
Elementeita had been the easiest stage in the morning loop, but no-one was taking anything for granted on the second pass over the twisty gravel trails by the lake.
The four cars that failed to finish on Friday safely negotiated the special without issues and Fourmaux then set the target of 8min 59.5sec. He trimmed another 1.8 seconds off Greensmith’s hold on fifth place.
Ogier still had his sights set on a podium finish and a stunning run of 8min 47.5sec enabled the Frenchman to set the fastest time and nibble another 2.1 seconds out of Tänak to trail the Estonian by 35.5.
Katsuta was safe in second place but dropped time to Tänak and another 4.4 to leader Neuville, who was forced to brake on a long straight to avoid a dazzle of zebra.
One mistake from any of the top four drivers would prove costly on the second pass through Soysambu. Stage openers, Sordo and Evans, were locked in their own little tussle as they climbed back towards the top 10 and were closely matched in 15th and 14th overall at the start of the stage. Evans beat the Spaniard by 15.3 seconds to move clear in his quest for a points-scoring finish.
A flying Fourmaux clipped a low banking and survived a two-wheel moment before a water crossing to post the target time of 14min 01.9sec for his five closest rivals.
Greensmith beat his team-mate by 4.1 seconds and Tänak stemmed the flow of time to beat Ogier by a mere second and claim his first stage win of the weekend.
The Estonian’s pace was such that he reduced Katsuta’s hold on second overall to 14.5 seconds heading to the last test of the day. Neuville was fourth quickest and headed to SS13 with a 35-second advantage.
With dark storm cloud gathering ominously overhead, would the re-run of the Sleeping Warrior stage be the sting in the tail after a relatively processional day at the Safari?
Sordo was 19 seconds quicker on his second pass in dry conditions and that pace gave the Spaniard the fastest time after a heavy shower caused chaos amongst the other front-runners.
Greensmith had to stop and clear his screen after spinning the Fiesta on the saturated surface (known locally as ‘black cotton’) but he maintained a 12-second advantage over Fourmaux.
Ogier survived what he described as like ‘driving on ice’, but Tänak suffered more than anyone and was forced to stop and clear a misting windscreen. A time loss of two minutes pushed the Estonian down to fourth place – 1min 05.7sec behind Ogier.
Neuville and Katsuta were also caught out in the changing weather conditions but were able to stay in first and second places with the Belgian extending his lead to 57.4 seconds after a hard charge in treacherous conditions.
Crews tackle five special stages on the final morning, starting with the first of two passes through the 11.33km of the Loldia special – located close to the tracks used on Wednesday’s shakedown.
A first run in the high-speed Hell’s Gate (10.56km) follows and starts close to a geo-thermal plant. Kenya is second in the world for producing geo-thermal energy after Iceland.
A single pass through the abrasive Malewa (9.71km) special precedes a repeat of Loldia and the televised Hell’s Gate Wolf Power Stage finale.
2021 Safari Rally Kenya – positions after SS13 (@17.30hrs):
1. Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Martijn Wydaeghe (BEL) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 2hr 45min 04.6sec
2. Takamoto Katsuta (JPN)/Daniel Barritt (GBR) Toyota Yaris WRC 2hr 46min 02.0sec
3. Sébastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Toyota Yaris WRC 2hr 46min 20.1sec
4. Ott Tänak (EST)/Martin Järveoja (EST) Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC 2hr 47min 25.8sec
5. Gus Greensmith (GBR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Ford Fiesta WRC 2hr 47min 44.0sec
6. Adrien Fourmaux (FRA)/Renaud Jamoul (BEL) Ford Fiesta WRC 2hr 47min 56.0sec
7. Kalle Rovanperä (FIN)/Jonne Halttunen (FIN) Toyota Yaris WRC 2hr 56min 08.9sec
8. Onkar Rai (KEN)/Drew Sturrock (GBR) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC3) 3hr 11min 03.7sec
9. Karen Patel (KEN)/Tauseef Khan (KEN) Ford Fiesta (WRC3) 3hr 16min 36.4sec
10. Carl Tundo (KEN)/Timothy Jessop (KEN) Volkswagen Polo GTi (WRC3) 3hr 18min 30.6sec