Tue, 16 Aug 2022

NAIROBI, June 27 (Xinhua) -- Top drivers have hailed the 2022 Safari Rally Kenya despite the battering they took in the sixth round of the World Rally Championship (WRC) over the weekend.

The African leg of the 13-round world series saw the best global works' teams take a beating - save from the Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris 1 squad that completed a top-four shutout led by 21-year-old Finn star Kalle Rovanpera, who won his first Safari Rally on Sunday.

Rovanpera added 25 crucial points to the 2022 WRC leader board to extend his tally to 145, 65 clear of Hyundai Motor Racing's Thierry Neuville (80) of Belgium.

Another Hyundai driver and 2019 WRC champion Estonian Ott Tanak (62) rounds out the top three.

Takamoto Katsuta (62) is tied with Tanak in fourth after claiming another Safari podium finish in third with Craig Breen (60) two points further back in fifth.

The Safari revved off on June 22 with a shakedown before the ceremonial start on June 23 paved the way to brutal motor racing in the picturesque African savannah that closed on Sunday with Rovanpera winning his fourth WRC event of the season.

"This one felt good," the 2022 Safari winner posted on Twitter as the winners' champagne flowed to celebrate his sixth career WRC win and a fourth of the 2022 season.

"The Safari is a rally which is very well-known from a long time ago and it's also always been a really important event for Toyota. It feels quite amazing what we have achieved and it's quite funny that Toyota was the team to make it the previous time. To also be the winning car in a result like this - it's just fantastic," the newly-minted champion later told wrc.com, describing his victory in Africa as his "most special so far."

Rovanpera, whose father Harri finished second in the 2022 WRC Safari Rally Kenya, led Toyota teammates Elfyn Evans, Katsuta, and 2021 Safari winner Sebastien Ogier across the line.

As the new king of the Safari, top drivers took to Twitter to toast the event that once again lived to its billing as the "world's toughest rally."

"Nice to be back on the podium and well done to the Toyota Gazoo Racing team for an awesome 1-2-3-4 finish.

"Our approach from the start was to drive well and conserve the car but the lead just slipped away from us after the odd bad stage and time loss with the punctures," Welshman Elfyn Evans, who finished 52.8 seconds in arrears with Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta, wrote on the microblogging platform after his second finish.

Katsuta achieved his second Safari podium finish in a row after finishing second in 2021 but this time dropped a place to third.

"We promised last year that we (would) do it and finally we stand on (the) podium together," Katsuta posted on social media with a photo of him and the winner Rovanpera holding champagne.

Eight-time WRC champion Ogier had roared back to contention in his title defense but Saturday's mud bath saw him fall off the pace, eventually recovering to round off the Toyota top-four.

"Bad luck was still there this weekend for us, without that puncture it could have been different but it's part of the game.

"I want to congratulate all (of) Toyota Gazoo Racing; it's amazing to provide such a strong car for three days on the toughest rally of the season!" the Frenchman remarked.

As the Toyota squad celebrated the first 1-2-3-4 at the Safari since 1993 when another Finn Juha Kankkunen led the Japanese manufacturer's sweep, their rivals were left reeling from a punishing weekend.

"Power stage points were the silver lining to a torrid weekend... But as the saying goes, if you fall off the horse, the best thing to do is (to) get right back on it," Ford M-Sport British driver, Gus Greensmith who finished 15th posted.

Greensmith made headlines in the 2022 Safari Rally when he rolled his Ford Puma 1 over onto its side on the first stage of Saturday morning, the front digging into the ruts on a tight right-hand bend and tipping the car over.

The video of his roll trended on social media throughout the weekend but he and co-driver Jonas Andersson were uninjured in the accident because of how the car landed, they could only escape it by kicking in the windshield.

However, the crew was not assisted in their extraction by stage-side marshals and footage emerged online of Greensmith shouting expletives towards the staff who were filming the accident when he had clambered out, admonishing them for not helping out.

"We had been trapped inside the car for over three minutes whilst safety marshals filmed and did not assist either myself and Jonas in exiting the car," the driver later clarified on social media.

World governing body, the FIA opened an investigation into the incident and concluded that the correct safety procedure was not followed at the scene.

Hyundai was the other team that took a beating at the Safari, with their i20 car that is reputed to be quick suffering reliability problems in Kenya.

"Tough weekend! But in the end, we scored 15 points at the WRC Safari Rally with our fifth position overall and five points in the Power Stage," their top driver Neuville wrote on Twitter.

Such is the arduous nature of the Safari Rally that Neuville who came close to winning the 2021 edition before a final day implosion, retired on Saturday and was able to start fifth on Sunday after soaking up a yawning 10-minute penalty.

Hyundai teammate and 2019 world champion Tanak was forced to retire again on Sunday and did not add any championship points to his tally.

"There is an opportunity for everything. It's so rough and anything can happen," he had posted after winning Stage 16 of the event only to retire in the next competitive section.

After the rough and tumble of the 2022 Safari Rally, the top drivers are all raring to come back again next year, with the event signed up for the WRC until 2026.

"That was the epic WRC Safari Rally! Thank you Kenya, we will certainly never forget these last few days!" Hyundai driver, Oliver Solberg, who grinded his way to a 10th finish, summed up the feeling among most of the crew.

His father, Petter, who finished third in the 1998 WRC Safari Rally echoed the younger Solberg.

"This year's WRC Safari Rally was just one of the most challenging rallies I've ever seen! Very proud of Oliver Solberg and Elliott for getting to the end of their first-ever gravel rally in a WRC car," the retired champion rally driver added.

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