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WRC Safari Rally review: At 21, Kalle Rovanpera proves age is just a number

Kalle Rovanpera chalked up win number four of the season on a dream week for his Toyota Gazoo Racing squad. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Kalle Rovanperä boosted his FIA World Rally Championship title hopes with a dominant victory at Safari Rally Kenya on Sunday afternoon.

The 21-year-old continued his run of irresistible form to chalk up win number four of the season on a dream week for his Toyota Gazoo Racing squad, which locked out the top four places for the first time in 29 years. 

Rovanperä never expected to win this rally. He arrived in Kenya with a commanding points lead and played down his glory hopes, instead starting with the mindset that any points from the championship’s roughest encounter would be a bonus. 

But the Finn’s ‘bring it home’ mindset soon went out of the window on Friday afternoon when he seized top spot from GR Yaris team-mate Sébastien Ogier, who stopped to change a wheel in the final test.

Despite feeling unwell, Rovanperä strengthened his position on Saturday and thrived in waterlogged conditions as downpours derailed many of his rivals’ hopes.

The sizeable 40.3sec margin he carried into Sunday’s finale was extended further by another two fastest times and the youngster ended the bruising four-day fixture 52.8sec clear of Elfyn Evans to head up the Yaris quartet.

Kalle Rovanpera from Finland and navigator John Haltunnen celebrate winning the WRC Safari Rally Kenya 2022 at Hellsgate in Naivasha. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

"It feels great,” beamed Rovanperä. “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."

Welshman Evans combated his troubled result last time out in Sardinia with a relatively drama-free drive. A puncture on SS10 was a minor scare, while a non-functional windscreen washer also led to some hairy moments during Saturday’s mudbath.

Katsuta sealed back-to-back Safari podiums

He finished 49.9sec ahead of Takamoto Katsuta, who sealed back-to-back Safari podiums after finishing runner-up last year. The Japanese driver kept a keen eye on his mirrors with Ogier behind and ended 27.6sec ahead of the eight-time world champion.

Ogier - winner of last year’s Safari - had mixed emotions at the end of the rally. Friday’s tyre trouble put him out of contention and he conceded more time on Saturday when the car’s engine ingested some of Africa’s famous fesh-fesh sand.

Takamoto Katsuta sealed back-to-back Safari podiums. [WRC]

The hotly-anticipated battle with compatriot Sébastien Loeb never materialised either, as the nine-time world champion retired his M-Sport Ford Puma with engine woes on Friday.

Nevertheless, Ogier was pleased to bring home more solid points for Toyota during his part-time campaign. The last time the team occupied all top four positions was in Kenya in 1993.

Neuville salvaged maximum Wolf Power Stage bonus points

Hyundai Motorsport’s Thierry Neuville was over 10 minutes behind in fifth overall despite incurring a 10min penalty when he crashed into a tree and failed to finish Saturday’s Sleeping Warrior finale.

It was a weekend to forget for the Korean manufacturer, with Estonian Ott Tänak’s i20 N also sidelined by a broken propshaft on the penultimate leg and retiring for a second time with power steering failure on Sunday. Both drivers held onto second and third in the championship and Neuville collected five bonus points for winning the Wolf Power Stage.

Thierry Neuville salvaged maximum Wolf Power Stage bonus points. [WRC]

Craig Breen restarted after his early bath on Friday and ended as M-Sport Ford’s leading driver in sixth overall despite nursing suspension problems. The British squad also endured a tough outing with Gus Greensmith rolling out of contention on SS8 and Adrien Fourmaux succumbing to suspension issues soon afterwards.

Breen was sixth despite technical troubles

Breen gained a position when Oliver Solberg stopped in the middle of the road with an air filter full of dust, causing the cancellation of Sunday’s opener. The young Swede eventually got going again but was plagued by a mechanical issue in the closing speed tests and dropped to 10th.

Craig Breen was sixth despite technical troubles. [WRC]

Puma privateer Jourdan Serderidis steered clear of trouble to finish seventh overall followed by a recovering Loeb and Polish driver Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who secured an emphatic WRC2 victory.

The championship returns to Europe when Rally Estonia (14 - 17 July) kicks-off the second half of the season.