Sébastien Ogier snatched an unlikely victory at Safari Rally Kenya on Sunday afternoon after longtime leader Thierry Neuville’s dreams were shattered alongside his car’s suspension.
When Neuville retired his Hyundai i20 in Sunday’s opening speed test, after hitting a rock and smashing the right rear damper, the Frenchman was perfectly placed to capitalise.
He demoted Toyota Yaris team-mate Takamoto Katsuta in the penultimate stage to win the punishing four-day African classic by 21.8sec on its return to the FIA World Rally Championship after a 19-year absence.
Ogier clawed his way up the order from seventh after suffering suspension troubles of his own on Friday. His fourth win in six rounds extended the seven-time champion’s lead to 34 points at the season midpoint.
“After our troubles on Friday, we had a really good weekend, really good pace,” said Ogier. “It’s been an amazing experience to be here. The support we got from the local people was incredible. It might be a bit shorter than the old days, but the challenge is still very tough.”
The Safari lived up to its reputation as one of the world’s iconic motorsport events. Rocky and sandy gravel tracks around Lakes Naivasha and Elmenteita in the Great Rift Valley provided a brutal test, while stunning scenery, exotic wildlife and enthusiastic locals portrayed Africa at its best.
Neuville had led for all but two stages until his premature demise, the third rally in succession that Hyundai had retired from the lead with suspension troubles.
“Very hard luck for us, but also for all the team,” said the Belgian. “Three tough rally weekends in a row, and nobody deserved that. We would have deserved three victories in the last three events, but unfortunately we didn’t.”
Japan’s Katsuta maintained his constant improvement to claim his first WRC podium in second to seal Toyota Gazoo Racing’s fourth 1-2 result of the season, widening its manufacturers’ championship lead to 59 points.
Aside from a couple of engine stalls, Katsuta was exemplary throughout. He ended 47.7sec clear of Ott Tänak, who was closing in until a faulty windscreen heater in Saturday’s final rain-lashed stage forced him to stop and clean the misted glass with his hand.
M-Sport Ford twins Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux claimed fourth and fifth in their Fiestas. Their risk-free strategy paid dividends and Frenchman Fourmaux celebrated his maiden top-level stage win on Sunday morning. They were split by just a tenth after Fourmaux received a post-rally 10sec penalty.
Kalle Rovanperä was almost nine minutes adrift in sixth in his Yaris, after receiving a hefty time penalty when his car ground to a halt in deep sand on Friday and he retired.
The championship returns to Europe when Rally Estonia (July 15-18) launches the second half of the season.
1. S Ogier / J Ingrassia FRA Toyota Yaris 3hr 18min 11.3sec
2. T Katsuta / D Barritt GBR Toyota Yaris +21.8sec
3. O Tänak / M Järveoja EST Hyundai i20 +1min 09.5sec
4. G Greensmith / C Patterson GBR Ford Fiesta +1min 54.6sec
5. A Fourmaux / R Jamoul FRA Ford Fiesta +1min 54.7sec
6. K Rovanperä / J Halttunen FIN Toyota Yaris +10min 53.4sec
FIA World Rally Championship (after round 6 of 12)
1. S Ogier 133pts
2. E Evans 99pts
3. T Neuville 77pts