NAIROBI, June 22 (Xinhua) -- Frenchman Sebastien Ogier served a warning to his rivals as he returns to defend his title from Thursday when the 2022 World Rally Championship (WRC) Safari Rally starts in Nairobi.
Ogier laid a marker on Wednesday when he was the quickest in the shakedown in Naivasha, about 90km northwest of the capital Nairobi, where the most competitive stages will be held amid dust and wildlife.
The Frenchman clocked 3:44.3 around the 5.4-kilometer shakedown course in his Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Yaris to finish ahead of Britain's Gus Greensmith who was 2.8 seconds in arrears in a Ford as Belgium's Thierry Neuville came third 3.6 seconds behind the leader in his Hyundai.
Ogier will defend his crown against the old foe and countryman Sebastien Loeb as they battle for the first time on Africa's unforgiving terrain.
"Last year we had a really nice welcome and a great atmosphere. To win was the cherry on the cake and it will be great to try to repeat that this year with a bit of knowledge of what to expect from the stages," Ogier told the WRC website ahead of Wednesday's shakedown.
The FIA World Rally Championship legends face off for the third time this year at the sixth and toughest round of the series in the picture-postcard Great Rift Valley.
Toyota Gazoo Racing's Ogier, eight times a title winner, claimed the Safari crown in 2021 when the sub-Saharan classic returned to the series following a 19-year absence.
Ogier was joined in GR Yaris cars by championship leader Kalle Rovanpera as well as Elfyn Evans - who retired last year on the opening day - and 2021 runner-up Takamoto Katsuta.
Rovanpera has shown incredible form so far this season with three wins from five starts.
Loeb is part of a five-car M-Sport Ford entry. He is joined by Craig Breen, fourth in the points, Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux, and gentleman driver Jourdan Serderidis.
Hyundai star Neuville is hunting for redemption after his bid for 2021 Safari success turned sour.
The Belgian led for most of the rally and was on course for victory before rear suspension failure derailed his challenge.
Neuville will team up with Rally Italia Sardegna winner Ott Tanak of Estonia as well as Oliver Solberg, who replaces Dani Sordo in the team's third i20 N car.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will flag competitors away from the Nairobi start on Thursday.
Ahead lie 19 grueling special stages around Lakes Naivasha and Elmenteita covering 363.44km before Sunday afternoon's finish in Naivasha.