Safari Rally: Toyota Gazoo hoping for another podium sweep

Toyota Gazoo Racing team, Elfyn Evans (2nd Left) and his navigator Scott Martin (Left), Kalle Rovanpera (3rd Right) and his navigator Jonne Halttunen (3rd Left), Takamoto Katsuta (2nd Right) and his navigator Aaron Johnston (Right) celebrates with their trophies after winning the WRC Safari Rally Kenya 2022 in position 2,1 and 3 respectively at KWS Headquarters in naivasha on June 26, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Reigning World Rally champions Toyota Gazoo Racing are out for a four peat podium sweep in the third leg of the World Rally Championship (WRC), the Safari Rally.

The competition revs off at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi today.

The Japanese constructors first achieved the rare podium sweep in 1993 under the guidance of legendary driver Juha Kankkunen.

They did the same in 2022, won by young Finn driver Kalle Rovanpera, and last year Kankkunen was present in Kenya to see Toyota do it again under the stewardship of France ace Sebastien Ogier who won the championship.

Ogier is not around to defend the Safari Rally title he also won in 2021 when the global motorsports extravaganza returned to Kenya after a 19 year hiatus.

Focus now is on his team mates Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans (Britain) and Takamoto Katsuta (Japan) who will fly Toyota’s flag high in Naivasha.

Despite being optimistic for a four peat, many rally fans are doubting Toyota’s potential to beat resurgent rivals Hyundai in the Safari Rally.

This is evident from the current formidable Hyundai line up and from the way Toyota started the season, missing victories in the first two rounds in Monte-Carlo (France) and Sweden.

Evans, who is currently the best placed Toyota driver on the log in second place on 45 points after third and second place finishes in Monte-Carlo and Sweden, agrees that it will be a tall order for them to bridge the gap between them and Hyundai in the Safari Rally.

“I think it’s still early days. We will try our best, we will try to get solid points in the Safari, it is very important for us to get these points,” Evans told Standard Sports.

Evans is among the world beaters who visited the famous Maasai Mara game reserve, courtesy of the Government and the Kenya Tourism Ministry, last week to unwind and acclimatise ahead of the rally.

But this week, he has a whole different mindset as all his focus and attention has been turned to the Safari Rally.

“It’s quite a challenge here in Kenya, you can never say ‘Let me now relax as I have fully prepared for the Safari Rally’. It’s a different ball game, we have done our preparations and now it’s a case of let’s see what waits ahead,” he said.

And does he believe Toyota will bag another four peat podium sweep?

“It is difficult to predict, from the way we have started the season and from the fact that Safari Rally is very unpredictable and challenging. I know it’s not going to be easy to do a clean sweep, but of course as Toyota we are always out to try our best,” Evans said.

Reigning world champion Rovanpera was shocked with a 39th place finish in his opening season in Sweden last month. He is currently placed eighth on the log on 11 points.

Rovanpera is eager to burry the miserable second leg outing with a victory in the Safari.

“My Sweden trip did not go as planned, so I’m really hungry to get good results in Kenya. As Toyota, we need to have a reliable pace, be consistent  and stay out of trouble,” the Finn said.

Despite a 45th place finish in Sweden, Katsuta  is optimistic for a maiden Safari Rally title this season after coming close to the trophy last year. He has finished the Safari Rally twice on the podium in his three attempts.

His potential to bag the leg has been backed by Toyota Gazoo Racing Principal Jari- Matti Latvala.

Katsuta had a dramatic Safari Rally last season, hitting a zebra in Loldia and suffering two punctures and a broken steering wheel.

By AFP 1 min ago
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