Superstar Sebs go head to head in WRC’s African classic

Eight-time and reigning FIA World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier defends his Safari Rally Kenya crown against old foe and nine-time WRC champ Sebastien Loeb as they battle for the first time on Africa’s unforgiving terrain, June 23-26.

The WRC legends face off for the third time this year at the sixth and toughest round of the series in the picture-postcard Great Rift Valley.

Both drivers are contesting only partial programs this season, but their head-to-head counters are proving a compelling storyline. Loeb struck first when the 47-year old became the oldest WRC event winner in history at the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally in his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1, edging fellow Frenchman Ogier by just 10.5s.

But Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Ogier (pictured above), who made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut earlier this month, won the 2021 Safari when the sub-Saharan classic returned to the series following a 19-year absence and is looking to repeat.

This will be their first Kenyan clash, with Loeb’s only previous start way back in 2002, when he finished fifth for Citroen.

Even in his shakedown run, Loeb was already pushing the Puma hard. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

Long straight roads where speeds could nudge 130mph contrast with rocky rutted tracks that reduce cars to little more than walking pace. Throw in the abundant wildlife that can wander across the stages, including lions, leopards, giraffes and zebras, and the crews need to be extra vigilant.

And if that’s not enough, adding another potential challenge are the thunderstorms that are predicted during the four-day event. If the forecasters are correct, rain could transform the dry sections into treacherous mud baths in minutes — a true test for the WRC’s new breed of hybrid Rally1 machines.

“Last year we had a really nice welcome and a great atmosphere,” said Ogier. “To win was the cherry on the cake, and it will be great to try to repeat that this year with a bit of knowledge of what to expect from the stages.

“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,” he added.

Ogier is joined in a four-car GR Yaris Rally1 contingent by WRC points leader Kalle Rovanpera as well as Elfyn Evans — who retired last year on the opening day — and 2021 runner-up Takamoto Katsuta.

Rovanpera has shown incredible form so far this season, with three wins from five starts. He tops the standings by 55 points, but may be disadvantaged by running as first car on the rough roads. In similar circumstances, he could only finish fifth at Rally Italy Sardinia three weeks ago.

Still, Rovanpera served notice of intent with quickest time in the pre-event Shakedown Stage. The 21-year-old Finn edged Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville by 0.5s on the 3.35-mile Loldia test stage, with Loeb’s Puma a further 1.3s behind in third. Ogier placed fifth, 2.2s off his Toyota teammate’s fastest time, but comfortable with his pace and setup.

Loeb is part of a five-car M-Sport Ford entry. He’s joined in the Puma fleet by Craig Breen, who’s currently fourth in the points, Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux and Jourdan Serderidis — the latter being the first privateer driver to make a WRC start in a Rally1 car.

Hyundai’s Neuville is hunting for redemption after his bid for 2021 Safari success turned sour. The Belgian led for most of the rally before rear suspension failure derailed his challenge.

Neuville will team up with Rally Italy Sardinia winner Ott Tanak, as well as Oliver Solberg, who replaces Dani Sordo in Hyundai’s third i20 N Rally1 car.

“I feel comfortable on the stages and this year we are out for revenge,” said Neuville. “It is a rough event and the weather can also play a big factor, but we are looking forward to it.”

Neuville is out to bag the one that got away on last year’s Safari. McKlein/Motorsport Images

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, the American duo of Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani are among the championship chasers choosing Kenya as their obligatory non-European round.

The Sainteloc Citroen C3 pair face WRC2 regulars Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Skoda Fabia Evo) and Martin Prokop (Ford Fiesta MkII), plus several local stars with experience and pace, including Karan Patel, Amanraaj Singh Rai and Aakif Virani, but could be in the hunt for their first WRC2 podium if they can unlock the elusive blend of pace and circumspection on their Safari debut.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta will flag competitors away from the Nairobi start on mid-day Thursday for a single 3.0-mile super special stage in the Kenyan capital, before the action heads to Lakes Naivasha and Elmenteita for the bulk of the event.

Things get serious on Friday with six stages and 77.2 competitive miles, followed by six more stages and a grueling 93.8 competitive miles on Saturday. Sunday’s final leg adds six more stages and 51.9 competitive miles, including the bonus points-paying Wolf Power Stage on the 6.54-mile Hell’s Gate test, before an afternoon finish in Naivasha.

Rubber-neckers come in unusual shapes and sizes for this rally. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

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