RACING

Superstar Sebs clashes in the WRC African Classic

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Reigning eight-time FIA ​​World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier defends his Safari Rally Kenya crown against old foe and nine-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb as they do battle on the field for the first time ruthlessness of Africa, from June 23 to 26.

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

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The two drivers are only contesting partial programs this season, but their head-to-head counters prove a compelling storyline. Loeb struck first when the 47-year-old became the oldest winner in WRC history on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally in his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1, beating his French compatriot Ogier of only 10.5 seconds.

But Ogier of Toyota Gazoo Racing (picture above)which made its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans earlier this month, won the 2021 Safari when the sub-Saharan classic returned to the series after a 19-year absence and is looking to repeat.

It will be their first encounter in Kenya, with Loeb only starting in 2002, when he finished fifth for Citroën.

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

Long straight roads where speeds can reach 130mph contrast with rocky, rutted tracks that reduce cars to little more than walking pace. Add to that the abundant wildlife that can wander through the steps, including lions, leopards, giraffes and zebras, and crews need to be extra vigilant.

And if that’s not enough, adding another potential challenge are the thunderstorms that are forecast during the four-day event. If forecasters are right, rain could turn dry sections into dangerous mud baths within minutes – a real test for the WRC’s new generation of Rally1 hybrid machines.

“Last year we had a very good reception and a great atmosphere,” said Ogier. “Winning was the icing on the cake, and it will be great to try to repeat that this year knowing a bit about what to expect from the stages.

“It’s definitely a rally where you should never give up, and this year with cars still so new, we may have to be even smarter 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 on Opening Day last year – and 2021 runner-up Takamoto Katsuta.

Rovanpera has shown incredible form so far this season, with three wins in five starts. It leads the standings by 55 points, but can be at a disadvantage running as the first car on rough roads. Under similar circumstances, he could only finish fifth at the Sardinia Rally Italy three weeks ago.

Still, Rovanpera served a NOI with the fastest time in the pre-event shakedown phase. The 21-year-old Finn edged Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville by 0.5 seconds on the 3.35-mile Loldia stage, with Loeb’s Puma 1.3 seconds ahead in third. Ogier was fifth, 2.2 seconds behind his teammate Toyota’s best time, but comfortable with his pace and setup.

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

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

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

“I feel comfortable on the stages and this year we want revenge,” Neuville said. “It’s a tough event and the weather can also play a big role, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Neuville is ready to pocket the one who escaped during last year’s Safari. McKlein / Motorsport Pictures

In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, the American duo of Sean Johnston and his co-driver Alex Kihurani are among the championship chasers who have chosen Kenya as the mandatory non-European round.

The pair of Citroën C3s from Sainteloc will face WRC2 regulars Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Skoda Fabia Evo) and Martin Prokop (Ford Fiesta MkII), as well as several experienced and fast local stars, including Karan Patel, Amanraaj Singh Rai and Aakif Virani, but could be on 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 steer competitors away from the midday start in Nairobi on Thursday for a single super special 3.0-mile stage in the Kenyan capital, before the action heads to Lakes Naivasha and Elmenteita for the major part 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 stage adds six more stages and 51.9 competitive miles, including the Wolf Power Stage which earns bonus points on the 6.54-mile Hell’s Gate test, before an afternoon finish in Naivasha.

Rubber collars come in unusual shapes and sizes for this rally. Jaanus Ree/Red Bull content pool

Visit WRC.com, official website of the FIA ​​World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all the stages of each rally live and on demand, when and where.

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