Returning to the WRC after almost two decades away, Safari Rally Kenya is expected to offer drivers arguably the toughest test of the season with its mix of extreme road conditions and the additional prospect of crews coming across wildlife on the stages.
Several drivers have reported sightings of wild animals on the stages, located on private farmland, during the recce earlier this week leading to concerns.
Unlike previous Safari rallies the cars will have very limited modifications to cope with hazards. Some teams have elected to reinforce sections of the cars, but there won’t be any bullbars or snorkels fitted as seen in the past to cope with the terrain and wildlife.
Teams were offered the opportunity to request changes but elected against pursuing extensive Safari modifications, given the extra expense to homologate parts, and that this is the final year of the current specification cars before 2022’s new Rally1 hybrid cars.
While excited by Kenya’s unique challenge, reigning world champion Sebastian Ogier was most vocal about the prospect of coming in into contact with wildlife at high speed following his recce run.
“We don’t have any bullbars so I really cross my fingers both for my rally chance and for my conscience, I would be very unhappy to hit one [an animal] and I would have big trouble coming back home,” he said after the recce.
“It is a massive challenge for sure but at the same time we need to mention we are in an amazing country where the nature is beautiful, but the people as well I really enjoyed the welcome we got, it was amazing.”
Atmosphere in Kenya
Photo by: M-Sport
Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville added: “We have seen quite a lot of deer crossing the road so this will be a challenge to manage those situations as well as we can.
“Of course in such situations we might need accept sometimes to lose a bit of time, you really cannot know what they will do [when] they are running in all directions. We have seen quite a lot of animals.”
While crews also won’t have a spotter helicopter at their disposal to clear wildlife as seen in previous iterations, organisers are taking every precaution to ensure both the safety of wild animals and rally crews, stating that such incidents in previous Kenyan rally events are rare.
In a statement issued to Autosport organisers confirmed that a helicopter followed by a train of cars will traverse the stages before cars enter to ward off wild animals, while Kenya Wildlife Services Rangers will also be on duty during the event.
“All of the special stages at Safari Rally Kenya are run on private conservancies. These areas of land can run to thousands and thousands of acres. They are active farms but also home to the wide variety of wild animals that roam around the area,” read a statement from the FIA.
“The stage routes chosen, except Chui Lodge and Oserian, which have never been competed on before, are regularly used by KSMF (local ASN) and African Rally Championship events. It is very unusual to hear of a competing car colliding with an animal.
“For the World Rally Championship round we will have an advance helicopter traversing the route that can corral animals away from the road. There will be a safety car caravan of eight cars checking the route in advance of the competing cars; this is for checking the route, ensuring it is set-up as per the safety plan and to ensure that everyone is in a safe place ahead of the first rally car. These cars will also have the effect of keeping animals away from the road.
“During the running of each special stage we will have Kenya Wildlife Services Rangers in the special stages, our own radio marshals and our safety marshals. The safety marshals will all have whistles and klaxons to warn spectators of approaching cars but to also cause noise to keep animals away.
Atmosphere in Kenya
Photo by: M-Sport
“Wildlife has always been an integral part of Safari Rally Kenya and adds to the colour and unique atmosphere of the rally.
“Much is being done to protect the animals and the competitors from each other. This is the first time in 19 years that the World Rally Championship has been back to Africa. It is going to be a great adventure and very different from any other round the WRC visits.”
Ogier topped the times in today’s shakedown finishing 0.1s ahead of Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans while Neuville was the top Hyundai in third just 1.1s in arrears.
The rally begins tomorrow with a Super special stage before Friday’s first loop of traditional stages.