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  • Writer's pictureDrew Bentham

WRC Rally Safari Review 2024

Neuville started strong on Friday

Stunning scenes around Nairobi welcomed the crews into the the ceremonial start on Thursday and the first stage of the 2024 WRC Safari rally. The super special of just shy of 5km wound around the bowl just outside the host city with sweeping curves, mild jumps and water splashes. For all the top crews, the stage was thankfully just a formality before the rally proper got started on Friday Morning.


Conditions were different from the recce in which the crews had all made their pacenotes, with some sections needing additional care. All crews completed the stage clean with Rovenpera heading the field by the stop line by 1.6s, although during stage end interviews he was complaining of severe understeer as were some of the other crews. Ott Tanak managed to complete and set a time of 3:58.6, good enough for second.


SS3 Geothermal 1,offered up some 13km of smoother gravel. First through was Neuville who, early in the stage, clouted a rock face with the right rear corner. The contact resulted in a puncture which over the course of the remainder of the stage, ripped the rear quarter away. Thankfully for Thierry, it was only the one puncture and not the two the car was showing up. EP continued a good morning, helped in part by his road position bringing his i20 back in second on the stage. Rovanpera showed his intent, setting the fastest time and extending the overall early lead.


SS4 was fast, very fast. Neuville clearly wanted to make up the time loss in the previous stage and drove an aggressive drive despite the car filling with dust and losing the hybrid. Evans got off to a slower start but managed to make up 6.6s over Neuville in the stage. Tanak had a clean run through also taking a chunk of time back but our rally leader Kalle Rovanpera, had a bigger push and beat Tanak by another 11.1s to go into midday service with an overall lead of 15.5s over EP. Further down, Brit Gus Greensmith maintained his lead at the end of the morning in WRC2. Another puncture in the final stage of the loop for Oliver Solberg, the second of the day and even more time lost.


Elfyn Evans enjoyed a good day 1

Post service changes had made some improvement to the Yaris of Elfyn Evans who had begun the afternoon with a better run through Loldia. Esapekka Lappi's torrid luck on the Safari reared its head once more on this stage when he hit something in the road, forcing the Fin to stop for the day. Lappi's team mate Tanak went into the afternoon carrying the same problems as the morning which did not bode well.

Stage 6 should have cleaned up by now to reveal the hard base for the crews to maximise. Elfyn thought so too and bolted on some hards to the front of his Yaris and promptly sent it on. He seemed happy by stage end. Neuville had thought otherwise. Still with the hards on, he expected to have been 'killed' by the others. Indeed at stage end he reported he had had an off in the stage, caused by a compression that ripped the wheel from his hands. Still he made it to the end having man-handled it back.


At 3.2 km into the stage Ott Tanak's rally was over. Again. A compression or possibly a rock, caused instant steering failure and he was going no further. This is the last thing the Estonian needed and his Hyundai return has equally taken a hard hit. Both crew were ok thankfully and they returned on Saturday.


Trouble for Tanak after he hit a rock, damaging the front suspension

No such drama for rally leader, Rovenpera put in a champions performance to win another stage. Taka was also doing well, now in second place with the retirements, but also driving well, and fast to earn the place. In recent events he has shown real maturity in his driving.


The last stage of the day, SS7 was the longest at 31.5km and some rain had fallen on the stage before the crews arrived. With grey skies, Neuville headed out first 11.7s away from the podium and drove with big commitment. Fourmaux had upped his speed as could be witnessed over the jump. Meanwhile, Elfyn continued his disappointing day down on his championship rivals.


Saturday


After frankly a turgid time on day 1, Ott set out into the first stage of the day with the intent on getting the car to the end of the day ready for an all out assault on Sunday. Fate however had other ideas, just shy of 10km into the stage the bonnet started to lift when a bonnet pin released, pushing the bonnet up on the right of the car. The crew opted to stop and re-secure it against the the risk of smashing the windscreen and carried on.


By the end of SS8, Lappi who was also restarting the rally, had picked up a puncture after hitting a rock towards the end of the stage, knocking the tire off the rim. Not the best of starts to the morning for either crew. Katsuta set off into the stage and brought the pace from the off, meanwhile Munster in the Puma had developed an issue causing him to slow. When they finally arrived at stage stop it became very clear Munster had suffered rear suspension damage. Fourmaux was keeping to the game plan of keeping it safe and held 4th place.


Elfyn who was sitting in 2nd at the start of the day had to stop in the stage having picked up a puncture. They carried on but the stop had brought Neuville back into the fight, with nearly 2 minutes lost Elfyn dropped below Fourmaux by 49s. Neuville had put in a good time, 4th fastest which gave him the final podium place. The run through SS8 was just quick enough to take the fastest time for Katsuta, just 0.2s ahead of Lappi.


Katsuta impressing with Safari pace
Katsuta impressing with Safari pace

Stage 9 continued Tanak's pain, the intercom failing leaving them with only hand signals. Seeing an opportunity to extend his championship lead, Neuville pushed through the stage to take 9.8 off Katsuta bringing the gap to 2nd down to 4.8s and bagging the stage win. Evans dropped another 6.5s in the stage. Where others were taking big cuts, Evans chose not to and paid the penalty. Munster did not manage to start the stage, unable to complete repairs in time and had to retire from the day. In WRC2, Gus Greensmith held a 3 minute lead over team mate Oliver Solberg, both crews going well.


In the shadow of the hill the stage is named after, Sleeping Warrior was the stage all the drivers were worried about. Extended to 36km in length, conditions were likely to be somewhat unknown and with some rain having fallen in the stage earlier in the day.


Lappi was the first in and soon discovered areas of slippy mud. In many areas the grip disappearing causing some sketchy moments which included the wildlife and half spins. Tanak took a more considered approach through the wetter areas. Hyundai's trouble continued, as Lappi's good run came to an end when the pair had to nurse the car through the remainder of the stage thanks to a puncture, losing about 1 minute. Tanak too suffered a puncture in the stage but did not suffer as great a time loss.


Back in 5th position, 55.9s adrift from Fourmaux, Elfyn Evans was back on form, topping the time sheet in the early splits. Fourmaux struggled with some understeer in the stage but made it to mid day service. The battle for 2nd place saw a too-and-fro during the stage, Neuville coming out on top by stage end. A good run from from him, but it was trouble for Takamoto Katsuta that really gave Neuville 2nd place. 59.8s lost in the stage thanks to a double puncture. Elfyn's charge had to wait having, you guessed it, picked up another puncture in the stage. At the top of the table, Rovanpera continued his mastery, recording a time 25s faster than anyone in the stage, taking his overall lead to over a minute.


The afternoon loop began with new challenges. Tanak's car began to fill with dust as they went through the stage, making conditions inside the car difficult to say the least. Ott complaining the window was sliding open and hinted toward another issue. He still managed to beat Lappi through the stage though. With the car refreshed, Katsuta charged through the opening test with a clean drive.


Neuville had got off to a slower start but pulled 11s back by the 3rd marker. Disaster was to strike the Belgian however, later in the stage. Fuel pump issues meant he lost 2 1/2 minutes in the stage and the 2nd place he occupied. They did get the car out on EV mode and stopped to investigate once through time control. It had appeared that they had fixed the issue. Meanwhile, Taka had put in a good time as did Elfyn who was trying to catch Fourmaux. The measured approach Fourmaux had adopted, was working well, minimising risk and maximising opportunities they came his way. The Frenchman up to 3rd at the end of the stage.


Disaster for Neuville

Dust issues from the previous stage seemed to have been fixed on Ott's car for stage 12. He completed his run almost 10s quicker that EP. Maintaining form, Fourmaux began 45s ahead of Neuville and put in another good drive. Even though Neuville had got to the stage on time and set off on ICE power, the problem soon returned forcing him into EV mode once again. The Belgian had to stop on stage having run out of electric power. Ever the fighters, the crew got the engine running again to nurse the car on to the end of the stage.


Taka pressed on, trying to make the most of Neuville's woes but was keeping relaxed and upbeat. Evans suffered yet another puncture but got to the end. By contrast, Kalle Rovanpera built a lead of over 2 minutes (or a tire change) and still avoided the drama of the other crews.


Safari had waged war on Hyundai's rally all weekend, the final stage of the day Sleeping Warrior 2 being no different. Esapekka Lappi set off into the stage with the hammer down and was going well until a double bird strike broke the screen. Innocuous damage but very quicky Lappi was rendered blind, forced to pull over and let those behind past. He cleared the stage but dropped a lot of time.


Fourmaux suffered a front left puncture and chose to carry on, the resulting damage having destroyed the front corner though he did complete the stage. Neuville struggled on with the intermittent fuelling issue and successfully completed the stage and the day. Taka completed also despite having an issue with the car. This was not Evan's rally, another destroyed tire, the 3rd of the day. The pair had to stop to change the wheel, again. A quick stop and they were off once more. Rovanpera continued a fairly trouble-free run to complete the day and bag maximum points, Tanak taking the stage win.


Leaderboard at the end of Saturday

Sunday


Sunday Morning arrived with Gregoire Munster re-joining the rally to compete for Super Sunday points, into the inconsistent conditions of Malewa to record a time of 6:14. Both Lappi and Tanak went through the stage with the clear intent of bagging some much needed points from Sundays offering. Lappi suffered a tire off the rim just 1km into the stage, Tanak managing a clear run. Starting the day down in 5th, Neuville chose to put the hammer down to make the most of the day. Evans, with more to lose was more cautious over the rougher sections, his eyes still on the final podium place currently occupied by Fourmaux. Fourmaux himself took a steady run through to protect the place and survived, Taka was not as lucky, suffering another tire off the rim.


Some relief for the Rally 1 crews as they made it through stage 15 trouble-free, game plans unchanged. Tanak pushed hard, Evans pushed harder going 3.2s quicker to win the stage. Fourmaux, keeping his head to maintain 3rd place, reducing the gap to Taka in second down to 58.7s behind Rovanpera who still holds a comfortable lead.


Hells Gate closed the morning loop for the crews and would also host the power stage later in the day. With everyone on the soft tire it was perhaps lucky the stage was a lot smoother and faster than previous tests. Hyundai's reliability was once again called into question when Lappi's car developed a transmission failure once again. For Tanak, it was a good opportunity to sight the stage ready for the power stage and put in a great time. Disaster struck yet again for Neuville after hitting a big rock in the stage, laying right on the line and breaking the rear suspension. Elfyn was lucky to get though unscathed to set the quickest time so far.


Fourmaux holding onto 3rd position
Fourmaux holding onto 3rd position with 3 stages to go

With the final 3 stages to go, everyone was thinking if the Kenyan wilderness had a coup de gras in store. Gregoire Munster was the first in to find out how much rougher Malewa had got and indeed it had, though he got through ok. For Lappi, this was just seat time with no chance of any result bar potential power stage points at the end of the day. Evans began the afternoon loop just 0.3s behind Tanak on the Sunday points table and headed into the stage after Tanak. With everything to fight for given his disappointing start to the season, Tanak went in hard in an all or nothing attempt to scoop some points. Evans by contrast was once again cautious through the first stage. But it was Neuville, with renewed suspension, who topped the time sheets being the only drivers to break the 6 minutes with a 5:59. Fourmaux was 6th fastest, with no need to risk it all thanks to his healthy buffer as did rally leader Rovanpera.


For the first of the 2 quicker stages left, the Hyundai's went for it, Tanak and Neuville within seconds of each other. Evans did not go nearly as quickly and dropped a vital 18s to Tanak, which essentially put paid to his Safari challenge. Neuville himself was 4.3 slower than his Estonian team mate. Fourmaux was 4th quickest through giving him a nearly 2 minute buffer to Evans going into the power stage. Katsuta had played it safe to safeguard his 2nd place and the points to come. These times would be safe anywhere else in the world, but as we've seen, not in Kenya.


Rovanpera secures another African win

Hells Gate 2, which had caused so much trouble earlier, would feature as the Power Stage. For a few of the drivers, it would be one to throw everything at, for others it was more about survival. In the latter camp, Fourmaux came through and secured his much deserved back-to-back podium, bringing the Puma home in 3rd. Rovanpera did the same to secure the win, though against the game plan, actually beat Evans and taking away an extra point.


Evans was one of those drivers from the former camp, and just like the rest of the rally, it was not to be. Evans could not hook the car up in the first half of the stage and lost 5s on Neuville at that point, only good enough for 5th in the power stage ranking. The Hyundai pairing of Neuville and Tanak were quickest through, Neuville taking the stage by half a second, Tanak giving it everything to score maximum overall Sunday points.


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