Kalle Rovanpera boosted his FIA World Rally Championship title hopes with a dominant victory on Safari Rally Kenya, leading home a Toyota 1-2-3-4.
The 21-year-old Finn overcame sickness, thick, sucking mud and rocky gravel tracks in the Great Rift Valley to win the legendary African event by 52.8s in his GR Yaris Rally1. Victory extended his lead in the drivers’ standings to 65 points, with seven rounds to go and a maximum of 210 points up for grabs.
Elfyn Evans finished second, 49.9s clear of Takamoto Katsuta, with reigning WRC champ Sebastien Ogier fourth. It was Toyota’s first 1-2-3-4 sweep since Kenya 1993 and the first from any manufacturer in the WRC for 12 years.
“It feels great,” said Rovanpera. “I have to say, this was the hardest rally I have ever done and if I am honest we just have to thank the team.
“To have four cars like this with no issues means it is clearly the strongest and fastest car. The team did a fantastic job.”
After a troubled weekend last time out in Sardinia, Welshman Evans sealed the runner-up spot in Kenya with a relatively drama-free drive. A puncture on Saturday was a minor scare, while a non-functional windscreen washer also led to some hairy moments during Saturday’s mud bath.
Third-placed Katsuta, who earned back-to-back Safari podiums after finishing runner-up last year, couldn’t ease off with Ogier’s Yaris in striking distance, but the Japanese driver held his nerve and ended 27.6s ahead of the eight-time WRC champ.
Ogier — winner of last year’s Safari — had mixed emotions at the end of the rally. Friday’s tire trouble put him out of contention and he conceded more time on Saturday when his Yaris’s engine ingested some of Africa’s famous fesh-fesh sand.
The hotly-anticipated battle with fellow Frenchman and WRC part-timer Sebastien Loeb never materialized either, as the nine-time world champion retired his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 with engine woes on Friday, before restarting well down the order for the remaining legs.
First of the non-Toyotas, Hyundai Motorsport’s ever-tenacious Thierry Neuville was over 10 minutes behind in fifth overall, despite incurring a 10-minute penalty when he crashed his i20 N Rally1 into a tree and failed to finish Saturday’s Sleeping Warrior finale.
Overall, it was a weekend to forget for the Korean manufacturer, with Estonian Ott Tanak’s car also sidelined by a broken propshaft on the penultimate leg and retiring for a second time with power steering failure on Sunday.
On the positive side, the Hyundai duo hold on to second and third in the WRC points, and Neuville collected five bonus points for winning the rally-closing Wolf Power Stage.
Ireland’s Craig Breen restarted after his non-finish on Friday and ended as M-Sport Ford’s leading driver in sixth overall, despite nursing suspension problems. The British-based team also endured a tough outing, with Gus Greensmith rolling his Puma out of contention on Saturday’s opening stage and Adrien Fourmaux succumbing to suspension issues soon afterward.
Breen gained a position when Hyundai’s Oliver Solberg stopped in the middle of the road with an air filter full of dust, causing the cancellation of Sunday’s opening stage. The youngster eventually got going again, but was plagued by a mechanical issue in the closing speed tests and dropped to 10th overall at the finish.
Puma privateer Jourdan Serderidis steered clear of trouble to finish seventh overall, followed by a recovering Loeb. The latter’s two consecutive stage wins on Sunday’s final leg offered a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been without the early engine issue.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, Kajetan Kajetanowicz secured an emphatic victory. The Polish driver, who’d set fastest WRC2 time on all six of Saturday’s stages, added another three stage wins on the final leg in his Skoda Fabia Evo, finishing ninth overall and 19m08.2s ahead of class runner-up Sean Johnston’s Citroen C3.
Americans Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani battled back from Saturday adversity to post fastest WRC2 time on three of Sunday’s six tests and secure their first podium in the category.
The Kenyan result puts Kajetanowicz into the WRC2 points lead, with Johnston in seventh and within striking distance of the drivers ahead of him.
The WRC returns to Europe next, with the fast, flowing gravel roads of Rally Estonia kicking off the second half of the season, July 14-17.
WRC Safari Rally Kenya, final positions after Day Three, SS19
1 Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) 3h40m24.9s
2 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +52.8s
3 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +1m42.7s
4 Sebastien Ogier/Benjamin Veillas (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1) +2m10.3s
5 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +10m40.9s
6 Craig Breen/Paul Nagle (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +23m27.9s
7 Jourdan Serderidis/Frederic Miclotte (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +30m16.5s
8 Sebastien Loeb/Isabelle Galmiche (M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1) +32m12.6s
9 Kajetan Kajetanowicz/Maciej Szczepaniak (Skoda Fabia Evo – WRC2 winner) +35m37.6s
10 Oliver Solberg/Elliott Edmondson (Hyundai i20 N Rally1) +37m36.6s
WRC Drivers’ Championship after 6 rounds
1 Rovanpera 145 points
2 Neuville 80
3 Ott Tanak 62
4 Katsuta 62
5 Breen 60
WRC Manufacturers’ Championship after 6 rounds
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing 246 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport 184
3 M-Sport Ford 144
4 TGR Next Generation 68
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