Safari Rally was set to return to the WRC already in 2020 but COVID-19 delayed the return by one year. As we know the event will be very different than in 2002 when it was last run in WRC, now run on 10-30 km stages on closed areas. The roads will still be completely unique within the series, retaining the character of the classic Safari – sometimes very fast, sometimes very slow – and you need to know which pace to apply. And the scenery and wildlife will be obviously like in the classic Safari!
The Loldia Shakedown is driven exceptionally already on Wednesday, but not until the afternoon. It starts on a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of the tracks. The character for the first half of the stage is mostly straight apart from a number of 90° junction turns. In fact, the area is used very densely making the stage overview resemble Ypres. The surface changes slightly with each turn, but not drastically until 3 km when the stage turns onto a narrow forest section which turns constantly and is rougher. Once the stage emerges from the forest it’s again faster and smoother. 900m before the finish there is a twisty section which revolves around the existing roads, but is a good representation of the less-built-up roads and artificial off-road detours in the rally.
The rally starts already on the Thursday afternoon in Nairobi with the twin-track SSS1 Kasarani. It’s just what you would expect from a Safari Rally super special, a track that is plowed into the ground. It’s the widest road of the rally, and also likely the most enjoyable to drive, with no surprising junctions or mudholes. A couple of jumps also spice up this relatively untechnical stage.
Friday contains the most narrow, twisty and jungly sections of the rally, but also its longest stage.
SS2+5 Chui Lodge is mostly driven on narrow but hard-based forest tracks. Only occasionally there’s bits on proper roads. If you want to compare it to something, the smallest service roads in the windmill park on the Tula stage in Sardinia are similar. Most of the stage is angular with only tight junction turns connecting the straightforward sections, but the very beginning and the very ending are twisty, as well as the section at 9.8 km. The hairpin at 10.3 km will be almost impossible to tackle without reversing!
SS3+6 Kedong is the longest stage of the rally at 32.68 km. It has a different character to the two other Friday stages by being often driven on built up roads. It’s the most straightforward stage of the rally and also possibly the fastest one. The two first stages couldn’t be much more different with each other.
Kedong starts on a somewhat wide – one of the widest of the whole rally – and relatively firm gravel road on an open field. It’s a very fast and straightforward section with only slight turns and bumps requiring attention, with no obstacles anywhere near the road. At 2 km the stage turns onto a narrower road which eventually becomes a track. Later the stage returns onto another road, but the landscape turns into a forest for a while. Again it’s very straightforward, but only the surface changes or damaged sections may require slowing down. There’s banks on the sides and it resembles Rally Argentina. The width of the road changes constantly, but the section is very straight and fast.
The first 8.5 km of the stage are practically straight before the first 90° turn of the stage, leading to passing of a farm and crossing a field. A hairpin turn takes the stage onto yet another relatively wide and straight road, but with mudholes. Suddenly the stage goes again onto small tracks at 11 km, but emerges back onto narrow but smooth roads 1.5 km later. at 15.3 km the road becomes coarser but remains still relatively smooth and fast, with only junction turns requiring slowing down. A couple of times another road is crossed as a speedbump.
The first properly twisty section of the stage appears at 23 km in. However, after the following 90° junction there’s again a very long straight, where the road surface just changes constantly from road to track to mere path. At 27.7 km there’s a long bend which leads onto a proper gravel road, one of the few ones in the rally. There’s some bends and a couple of 90° turns, but mostly again straight and fast.
The stage was driven in identical format in the Equator Rally Kenya in April. You can see the stage performed here with a Group N car, but a WRC car could go much faster with more advanced suspension and more power. Also the conditions in the rally were rather wet. The stage win average speed on the second run was up to 99 km/h on a Polo R5, already on the first run, so the second run would have been faster. The WRC cars could reach average speeds of 120 km/h with the sustained straights.
The title Kedong featured in the 2002 Safari Rally, actually on two different stages, and it’s possible that the first one of them featured partly same roads as this year’s stage. While this is likely the only piece of road of this year’s special stages to have featured on the old Safari rallies, many of this year’s liaison sections were likely tackled at high speeds in the old Safari (as it was run on roads not closed from public traffic). In fact, the organizers have warned the competitors about surprising speed bumps on paved road sections, as well as motorcyclists making sudden turns.
SS4+7 Oserian is situated geographically close to SS2+5 and the characters of the stages are similar. This is also driven mostly on narrow forest tracks which are barely visible from the vegetation. Only for a short while at 12 km the stage resembles a proper gravel road. The beginning has a constant flow of turns, but then around 4 km it opens up into a more angular character including some long straights, except for the twisty section at 9 km. The high-speed road-crossing at a difficult angle at 14.9 km will be tricky! The last 1.5 km of the stage is again more twisty.
The Saturday stages are more often on sandy tracks on open areas compared to Friday’s jungle tracks, but the stages include a lot of rhythm and surface changes from fast to slow, smooth to rough, road to track, straight to twisty.
SS8+11 Elmenteita is an angular stage mostly driven on offroad tracks. It begins on a sandy part on an open area with flowing turns, going close to its namesake lake shoreline. At 2.5 km there’s a twisty section in the bushes, but the stage soon returns to the open area. At 5.3 km there’s a 270° turn in a chicane or half-donut-like setting. The end of the stage contains mostly long straights with sudden surface changes and mudholes, as well as slightly twisty passages and tight junction turns.
This video from the Equator Rally Kenya shows how the roads can become if it’s rainy. The stage win average speed was 90 km/h on a Polo R5.
SS9+12 Soysambu starts similarly, on a sandy-based track on an open area. However, what follows right away is a restless string of rhythm and surface changes, going on and off the road, turning from junctions, straight to twisty, smooth to rough passages. At 5.4 km there’s a forest track section which turns all the time and contains several mudholes, especially at the beginning. At 7.4 km the stage turns onto a road which is very rocky and rough. At 8.5 km it becomes smoother with only occasional bad patches. It’s straightforward at first, then more twisty from 10.8 km. At 13.4 km the stage turns again onto a rough track which turns smooth at times, alternating between straight and twisty. There’s two river crossings at 13.8 km and 16.7 km, AFAIK the only ones in the rally. The ending of the stage is again on an open area where the road is faintly visible, and there’s a longer flowingly turning section.
The stage win average speed was 79 km/h in the Equator Rally Kenya. It indicates it’s a slightly slower stage.
SS10+13 Sleeping Warrior is the longest of the day and the second stage in the rally to pass the 30 km marker. It goes to the extremes by having very fast and very slow sections, making it likely the most difficult stage of the day, creating probably big time differences. The stage win average speed in Equator Rally Kenya was 89.6 km/h. It will be interesting to see how fast the WRC cars will go on the fast sections of this stage.
The start is on an open area ,on a quite rough track, turning all the time. At 2.6 km it joins a proper road, quite narrow and quite smooth, mostly straight. There’s two detours off the road and a rougher surface, but at 7.8 km the stage goes into a forest track which is more twisty but still quite fast at times. A section of long straights is cut with a chicane like detour at a junction at 10 km. There’s occasional mudholes, but mostly smooth sailing, very fast at times. At 13.5 km the stage goes onto a smaller road which is occasionally only a track, sometimes very rough or soft but also occasionally fast, turning constantly. At 17.2 km there’s a rough uphill followed by a bumpy and grassy track, but constantly very straightforward.
After the 20 km mark there’s a series of tight junction turns and surface changes. However, the biggest rhythm change in the stage occurs at 26.5 km when it turns onto a barely visible grassy track which is quite rough and turns all the time. It gets even rougher and even rocky at 27.2 km with tricky small crests and turns on the narrow power line service track. The stage opens up but remains rocky until the very last tight junction just before the finish line.
The Sunday stages resemble mostly “normal” rallies by being driven mostly on roads and having actual bends on them. However, there’s also plenty of junction turns and some off-road action.
SS14+17 Loldia bears the same title as the shakedown, but the stages do not share their routes. However, like the shakedown, this has lot of tight junction turns. It also alternates between roads and tracks, but the surface is relatively smooth all the way through. The only exceptions are a spot with sharp crests at 4.9 km and a slightly rougher passage at 7.2 km.
On the Equator Rally Kenya this stage clocked stage winning average speed of 88 km/h.
SS15+18 Hell’s Gate acts as the rally-concluding power stage on the second pass. It has the widest and most properly built road of the whole rally, with even some sort of ditches. This could also be the fastest stage of the rally.
The character of the road at the start is quite fast and flowing with only occasional tighter corners. Furthermore, the surface is a bit rocky or soft at times, especially in the beginning. At 2 km the road becomes narrower for a while, but still wider than most of the rally.
At 5.9 km the stage turns onto a loop of small roads and forest tracks. However, most of them are still smoother than the rally average. Finally the stage rejoins the first road with a fast downhill passage and a sharp junction turn just before the finish line.
EDIT: The beginning of this stage looks narrower and more rocky in the updated recce video, possibly being damaged by rain.
SS16 Malewa is the shortest stage of the rally and the only proper stage to be driven only once. It’s also one of the most technical stages of the rally, and has the most rocky surface. The stage win average speed on Equator Rally Kenya was only 65 km/h on the first pass and 73 km/h on the second pass, indicating it’s a slow stage.
Malewa starts with a continuous flow of bends on a narrow road with a relatively smooth surface. At 1.8 km it goes onto a more rocky passage which almost resembles Rally Turkey. Soon there’s a sharp junction turn onto a rougher, less used road. The road becomes again narrow but smooth at a kink at 3.9 km. Additional surprises include a mudhole at 4.6 km and a chicane-like small detour 200, later.
The rest of the stage is driven on wider and smoother roads with even some crests, uphills and downhills. The surface is still every now and then rougher and/or rockier. Frequent junction turns also give rhythm to the otherwise straightforward roads.
Road conditions and starting order
It’s very difficult to predict how starting order affects performance on these stages, because the surface is so different to anything we’ve seen. Of course I haven’t visited the sites so I can’t know for sure, but it seems over half of the rally is on roads which are not built up, but on a route where vehicles have been driving repeatedly, forming a track into the sandy soil. Thus there isn’t a hard road base which would clean like in traditional gravel rallies. Therefore I wouldn’t expect starting position to make a big difference. Maybe somewhat on the Sunday stages which have more of built roads, but on Sunday the starting order will be reversed anyway. Sebastien Ogier starts first into the rally and he’s my favourite for the win.
The rain season in Kenya is already over, but there could still be some rain before and during the rally, although dry, slightly over 20°C is mostly expected in the forecasts. Dust could also be an issue for later starters especially on forest sections. However, if the rain comes, it will make the stages very muddy and slippery.
Another unpredictable element on this event will be the wildlife on the stages. The recce videos are showing often animals crossing the road quickly, or minding their own business in herds with no hurry. Obviously rally cars will make a greater noise, but it’s possible to get collisions with the animals. In addition to time loss, the cars could get damaged.
The last report from the clerk of the course mentions cutting bushes from the stages (in order to prevent car air intakes being filled with grass) and adding anti-cut devices (there were piles of dirt on corners on open areas on Equator Rally Kenya)
All in all, it will be an interesting rally, something new to everyone!