Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team (TGR-WRT) return to the Safari Rally Kenya this week (22-25 June), aiming to maintain their proud record of success on the epic African event, the seventh round of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship.
The Safari, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is recognised as one of rallying’s toughest challenges. TGR-WRT has won both editions held since the event made a welcome comeback to the WRC calendar in 2021. Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä (who leads the current standings by 25 points) took victory last year ahead of Elfyn Evans. This year they are joined by 2021 winner Sébastien Ogier, while Takamoto Katsuta, who claimed his first WRC podium finishes in Kenya in ’21 and ’22, drives an additional GR YARIS Rally 1 HYBRID with the support of the TGR WRC Challenge Program.
While the Safari used to be held over very long stages on roads that were still open to the public, it now features a format similar to other modern WRC rounds. Nonetheless, it still poses many challenges: some sections of the gravel stages are extremely rough and rocky, while others on soft sand can be just as hard to navigate. Rain can also dramatically affect the conditions, turning a dry and dusty surface into deep mud in an instant.
The rally route is similar to last year, with shakedown taking place on Wednesday before the event begins from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on Thursday lunchtime. The nearby Kasarani super special stage then kick-starts the competitive action. Friday is based around Lake Naivasha, around 100km north-west of Nairobi and where the service park is also located. An anti-clockwise loop of three stages around the lake will be run twice either side of midday service.
Saturday is the longest day of the rally, taking crews north to Lake Elmenteita for another trio of repeated tests. On Sunday there are two more loops of three stages around Lake Naivasha, starting with a reworked version of the Malewa test last run in 2021 and ending with Hell’s Gate, which hosts the rally-ending Power Stage. A total of 221 competitive miles will be driven across the four days.
Jari-Matti Latvala (Team Principal): “The Safari Rally has been a really exciting event for us in the last two years and of course we hope we can achieve another good result, but we know it will not be easy. We have seen that the modern Safari has the same spirit as before: it’s the longest and toughest rally in the championship and very different to the others, as it’s more about endurance and surviving stages that can be really difficult for the cars. For our engineers and mechanics, it’s a busy week, preparing and adapting the cars for the changing conditions. And for the drivers, patience is crucial to be able to push hard in the right moments, and not when it’s too rough. All four of our drivers have shown they have what it takes to succeed in Kenya and are ready for the challenge.”
Kalle Rovanperä (Driver car 69): “I’m looking forward to going back to Kenya. I have really enjoyed the event both times we have been there. Already in 2021, we were going quite well until we got stuck in the sand. Then, last year, it was of course very special to win with a perfect result for the team. It’s a rally that can depend a lot on the weather, because the conditions can change completely from one year to another. That makes it a really big challenge, but it’s one that suits us quite well, I think. Let’s see what the conditions will be like this year and hopefully we can have another strong weekend and score more good points for the championship.”
Elfyn Evans (Driver car 33): “It’s always difficult to know what we can expect on the Safari Rally, which is what makes it such a challenge for the teams and the crews. Most of the route will be the same as last year, but we know that the conditions can vary massively: not only from one year to the next, but also from one section of stage to another. We’ve already experienced a lot of different conditions there over the past couple of years, so we have been looking back through those events to prepare as best as we can, but we also need to be ready to adapt to whatever we face during the week. As a team we had a fantastic rally last year and hopefully we can be strong again.”
Sébastien Ogier (Driver car 17): “I have really enjoyed the experience of going to Kenya these past two years and this is the main reason why I wanted to return again. It’s something very different from what we are used to; the country and its people are amazing. The rally is very tough and we know that luck can be a big factor: in 2021 it was able to come back from more than two minutes behind to win, as almost everybody had an issue at some point. Every rally I start, I try to win, and we will give it everything like always. I hope we got all our bad luck out of the way in Sardinia and that fortune will be on our side this time.”