5 big takeaways from Safari Rally Kenya

It simply wouldn’t be Easter weekend without the Safari Rally. But for 24 long years, as rally fans we were left bereft. Respected WRC journalist Luke Barry kept a very close eye on the event, so here are the five big takeaways from Safari Rally Kenya 2024:

Some of us of a certain generation may not even remember the Safari as part of the world championship running in the traditional Easter slot, given the last time it did so was 2000.

This year put that right, but perhaps didn’t deliver in the way that many had anticipated. Despite the move to Kenya’s rain season, the rain barely came last week, but the World Champion’s reign on his chosen sport continued with another domineering performance.

Toyota is undisputed king of Africa

For the first time since 2018, Toyota had started a WRC season without winning either of the opening two events. But it swiftly put that right with a commanding 1-2 finish on a rally it has long made its own.

As the winner himself put it: “Like they say in Africa: the car in front is always a Toyota!”

Ever since the Safari returned to the WRC calendar in 2021, Toyota has been victorious. Ott Tanak’s Hyundai may have led after the opening Kasarani super-special, but Toyota’s record never really looked to be under threat.

After a slight false start to his much-talked-about part-time campaign, Kalle Rovanpera was back to his very best at the weekend. Winning all six of Friday’s stages earned him a lead of almost a minute, which he duly controlled to the end in a drive he (very rarely) credited himself for.

It was the ultimate display of discipline and composure as the 23-year-old avoided any of the dramas that struck his rivals. But the car stood up to the test too. Elfyn Evans’ GR Yaris Rally1 was pegged back the most, but that was all by punctures rather than anything mechanically amiss with his car.

The same could not be said for Toyota’s chief championship rival…

Hyundai’s still got weaknesses

Hyundai’s start to 2024 has been nothing short of ballistic. Two rallies, two wins; it was a new record for the Korean marque. But the first gravel rally of the season was always going to provide a stern acid test, and Hyundai fell drastically short of Toyota’s yardstick in Kenya.

The African outback has never been a happy hunting ground for Hyundai. Neuville’s devastating suspension failure while leading on the final morning in 2021 has rather set the tone for what has followed since. Last year is remembered for Esapekka Lappi’s propshaft failing a remarkable four times, while the less said about 2022 the better.

The fact is Hyundai has only ever taken one podium on the Safari (Tanak, third in 2021) and that didn’t change this time round. Neuville, in fairness, looked to be on course for it, but a mysterious fuel-related issue on Saturday afternoon starved his i20 N Rally1 of any regular power delivery and left the Belgian sliding down the leaderboard. Frustrated would be an understatement of his emotions.

And then there was Lappi. Brimming with confidence after a first WRC win in almost seven years last time out, the Finn was a fine second before his gearbox quite literally exploded on Friday. It transpired his transmission had broken – a problem effectively created by strengthening the propshaft, as a lack of homologation jokers prevented Hyundai from completely curing the problem.

More technical problems thereafter left Lappi forlorn and unlikely to be keen on a return to the Safari any time soon.

For the second year in a row Esapekka Lappi was beset by mechanical woes.

Tanak’s title quest is crumbling

There was more bad news for Hyundai at the weekend, as one of its lead drivers suffered yet another disappointing event.

An off-road excursion preceding a muted run to fourth in Monte Carlo, and then a retirement in Sweden, meant Tanak flew to Africa in need of a strong result in order to reverse the tide against his title rivals Evans and team-mate Neuville.

But things went wrong again for the 2019 title holder in Kenya, as Tanak hit a rock in the middle of the road and was consequently hurled into a road-side bank which damaged his Hyundai’s steering. The Estonian was unable to continue.

Some strong speed, and a slimmer entry on the Safari, enabled Tanak to recover to eighth overall (and top the Super Sunday standings), but he nevertheless pocketed fewer points than both of his championship rivals for the third rally running.

Nothing is ever impossible in rallying, but a 34-point deficit to his championship leading team-mate is bad news for Tanak this early in this season, as at some stage of the season Hyundai is sure to back one of its title-chasing horses. And on current form, that horse will be Neuville.

Taking top points on 'Super Sunday' was hardly the Safari result Tanak was expecting.

Fourmaux’s no flash in the pan

Adrien Fourmaux has already proved what he needed to prove this season. After an erratic debut full season in Rally1 two years ago, the Frenchman demonstrated an impressive maturity curve in a Rally2 car last season.

A disciplined drive to fifth in Monte Carlo, and then a superb maiden podium in Sweden answered whether Fourmaux could continue his new-found form when back in the big league.

But to score a second WRC podium at the first time of asking… nobody could realistically have expected that. In doing so, Fourmaux became the first driver since Dani Sordo in 2006 to score a podium immediately after securing his first, and he brought a Ford car onto the rostrum in Africa for the first time since Colin McRae in 2002.

These are impressive stats, but it’s the quality of Fourmaux’s drive which matters more. His only issue all weekend was a puncture on Saturday’s final stage. Instead of pushing, Fourmaux just ran his own event and floated up the leaderboard to third as a consequence.

Comfortably third in the championship is just reward for how well he is currently driving. Now all he’s missing is a podium on tarmac, but on current form you really shouldn’t bet against that coming next time out in Croatia.

You'd hardly know it, but Adrien Fourmaux drove a 'steady' rally to finish third.

Greensmith’s an overlooked WRC2 contender

When your primary need is access to a toilet to deal with an upset stomach, the last thing you really want to be doing is driving a Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 through the African wilderness in the knowledge that every tenth of a second counts in your quest to be world champion.

Take a bow, Gus Greensmith.

Even without his illness that left his energy levels at “1%” on Friday, this was a supreme drive. But factor Greensmith’s deteriorating health, and it was nothing short of extraordinary.

The Briton’s cause was aided by Oliver Solberg’s spate of flat Pirellis on the first morning, but Greensmith’s pace looked strong enough to, at the very least, give Solberg a battle (he was ahead before the Swede’s first puncture) and he managed his advantage perfectly once he was afforded a break.

In a WRC2 season that is expected to be fiercely competitive, this was an important marker for Greensmith to lay. Along with Solberg, likely Pierre-Louis Loubet and potentially Yohan Rossel and Sami Pajari too, he is very much in this fight to be champion.

Gus Greensmith had no time to admire the zebras on his way to a WRC2 win.

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Luke Barry

Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com
Luke Barry is an award-winning rally journalist, with several years experience at leading outlets including DirtFish. Currently freelance, he is growing his portfolio across all areas of rallying. Email: luke.barry1997@gmail.com