Hyundai Motorsport set for tough test in Safari Rally Kenya

Hyundai Motorsport is on a mission to continue its winning momentum at Safari Rally Kenya, the seventh round of the 2023 FIA World Rally Championship (WRC), set to take place from Thursday 22 June to Sunday 25 June.

While the team travelled to Africa in high spirits, the challenge of Kenya means that nothing is certain. The event is a true rally of attrition – something that the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team knows well from its experience in 2021. Having led the rally, Neuville was forced to retire on the final morning with a broken rear-right damper. However, the team remains hopeful that the 2023 running of Safari Rally Kenya could provide redemption as it seeks to continue a run of solid form from recent events.

With 60 years of rallying history, including an appearance in the WRC’s inaugural season, the Safari Rally holds a lot of heritage. The gravel surface is unlike any other on the calendar, with the notorious fesh-fesh sand and treacherous rocky stages creating a uniquely challenging environment. Some sections need to be taken at a crawl to survive; there is no room for a constant flat-out approach.

Drivers are tested physically and mentally by the routes, the changing weather conditions and hidden obstacles, which creates a completely different driving experience. Should rain come in to play for a second consecutive event, crews will find the dusty routes turn into muddy streams.

As Wydaeghe sees it …

Safari Rally Kenya has moments that require a co-driver to be even more alert than any other rally in the year, says Martijn Wydaeghe, Thierry Neuville’s co-driver.

“The greatest challenge in Kenya is that you can prepare as much as you want, but you will still have surprises. The road book looks exactly the same as last year, but we already know that the stages will be different because of the ever-changing weather conditions.

“The profile is unlike anything else; the mix of the fesh-fesh and the rocky terrain creates a completely different rally. This is why it’s important to adapt to the changing speeds – the surface has such varied characteristics. The most challenging stage is probably Sleeping Warrior as it’s the longest, making it harder to get into a consistent rhythm.” 

Views on the crews

The Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid trio of Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe, Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm and Dani Sordo/Cándido Carrera will embark on the Safari Rally, aiming to close the gap in both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ standings. 

“We are excited for this one – we want to have a Safari Rally to remember. The profile of this event differs so greatly from the previous two, however our Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid car has been excelling in rough conditions recently, so we’re hoping to build on that and replicate the success of Sardinia,” says Cyril Abiteboul, Hyundai Motorsport team principal.

“The podium is the minimum target for us – we are starting to close the gap to our competitors, but we cannot afford to lose our momentum or focus. We made good gains in the drivers’ standings, and we need to now make that same progress with manufacturers’ points. We are hungry to win again, and with the pace we saw in Sardinia, we are focusing on how we can repeat that result.”

Crew Notes: Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe

Neuville said: “Kenya is an adventure. It is a tough event and very challenging because we are driving through the middle of the parks and the countryside, where there are some very rough sections with sand and fesh-fesh. Each stage has its own characteristics, but the changing conditions and different surfaces is what we enjoy so much about this rally.

“We will keep fighting all the way through, as we know very well that the rally isn’t over until it’s over. We saw that two years ago when we were leading, and then had an issue just before the end. Hopefully, we get the victory this year.”

Crew Notes: Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm

Lappi said: “It’s harder work than normal to prepare for Safari Rally Kenya. I’ve watched as many onboards (video footage) as possible to understand how you should drive on each of the specific areas. It’s another gravel rally, and we know the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid performs well on this surface, but we may just need to go higher on the ride height.

“I’ve also heard there are a lot of zebras here and they might venture onto the road, so it will be a unique experience for me with the conditions and the animals as well!”

Crew Notes: Dani Sordo/Cándido

Sordo said: “The Safari Rally is a nice experience, I have only done it once before, but the stages are quite different – especially with the animals around and the fesh-fesh sand, which we know can be tricky. The weather can also play a big part, as the stages can become slippery if it rains.” 

Weekend at a glance

The Safari Rally Kenya begins on Thursday 22 June with a super special stage in Nairobi. Friday features six stages, with two runs of Loldia (19,17 km), Geothermal (13,12 km) and Kedong (30,62 km).

Saturday is the longest day, both in time and the competitive distance. Teams have an early start to take on Soysambu (29,32 km), Elmenteita (15,08 km) and Sleeping Warrior (31,04 km).

Three further stages are run on Sunday: Malewa (8,33 km), Oserian (18,33 km) and Hell’s Gate (10,53 km), to bring the total competitive distance to 355,92 km.