Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua flagged off the 70th anniversary of World Rally Championship (WRC) Safari Rally at Uhuru Park on Thursday amid fanfare.
The event, scheduled for June 22-25, has attracted a total of 34 drivers including defending champion Kalle Rovanperä and started with the Super Special Stage at Kasarani before the main action set for Friday and Saturday.
Speaking during the flag-off, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua underscored the importance of the safari rally to the country even as he reminisced the good old days.
“There was nothing during our childhood days that lit our villages like the safari rallies during the Easter holiday,” observed the deputy president.
Kenya Motorsport Federation (KMSF) President Phineas Kimathi,Gachagua said the 70th Safari Rally WRC is nostalgic and historic.
“Sports and sporting activities are great contributors to our nation’s socioeconomic well-being. Many Kenyans derive their livelihoods out of sports as well as a brand that Kenya is known for across the world. There was nothing during our childhood days in our villages that lit our villages like the Safari Rallies during the Easter holiday” he said.
This year’s entry list has 10 top-level Rally1 Hybrid cars and 11 WRC2 runners.
The list also includes a five-strong WRC3 line-up which has Kenya KQ/Safaricom trio of McRae Kimathi, Jeremiah Wahome, and Hamza Anwar.
Rovanpera of Finland will be out for a double having denied his Toyota Gazoo Racing team mate Sebastien Ogier victory in the leg last year.
“We had quite a good feeling to be honest,” he said. “Everything seems to be as clear as it can be before a Safari Rally. Hopefully we can have another strong weekend and score more good points for the championship.”
Ogier is also hopeful for a double after clinching the African circuit in 2021.
Toyota has lined up a strong squad in this year’s event. Rovanpera, Elfyn Evans, Takamoto Katsuta and Ogier who swept the podium with a 1-2-3-4 finish in that order last season will ply trade for the Japanese constructor.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz starts this week’s Safari Rally Kenya (22 – 25 June) as the victory favourite in WRC2 having triumphed at the African classic twelve months ago.
The Pole, who finished third in the WRC2 series last year, has only started two WRC rounds so far in 2023 and sits a lowly ninth in the championship standings as a result. Victory here, however, would vault him into the top five of the premier support category.
Kajetanowicz is co-driven by fellow countryman Maciej Szczepaniak and logistical challenges see the pair revert back to their trusty Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo for this round, the same car used for Guanajuato Rally México earlier this year.
“In theory we know this event, as most stages are the same as last year. However, this is still the most unpredictable round of the whole WRC calendar, that’s why we expect the unexpected,” Kajetanowicz said.
“We know that many things can happen, and we cannot control everything, so we try to foresee as much as we can. You cannot drive a perfect rally but we will do our best – driving well, wisely and cleanly,” he added.
Oliver Solberg is also in action, driving a Fabia borrowed from fellow competitor Daniel Chwist. The Swede, however, has decided not to count this round as a points-scoring one.
Karan Patel and Carl Tundo are the leading Kenyan hopefuls. Fabia man Tundo has won the event five times in total while Patel, who drives a Fiesta R5, is the reigning national champion.
“The level of competition from WRC is much more superior than what we are used to in our local and regional events,” Patel admitted, “but we will have a very clever drive and try to maintain a very good pace.”
Grégoire Munster makes his Safari Rally Kenya debut behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta Rally2. The British team will also run a similar car for Greek driver George Vassilakis, contesting only his third WRC rally.
Škoda rivals Armin Kremer and Miguel Díaz-Aboitiz compete for WRC Masters Cup honours while locals Aakif Virani and Samman Singh Vohra complete the entry. Piero Canobbio, who was due to drive a Hyundai i20 R5, withdrew prior to the start with terminal engine issues.
President William Ruto, who was at the shakedown in Naivasha on Wednesday, is expected to be at the final stage on Sunday to award the winners.