M-Sport Ford World Rally Team drivers Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux are heading to unchartered territory this week as the iconic Safari Rally Kenya returns to the FIA World Rally Championship following a 19-year absence.
Like their WRC rivals, the legendary gravel event is all-new for M-Sport’s rising stars, although the British team has a record to be proud of in East Africa, courtesy of two notable triumphs from the past.
In 1999, Colin McRae and Nicky Grist helped M-Sport deliver the first victory for the Ford Focus WRC. Then, three years later, McRae and Grist won the final Safari Rally to count for the World Rally Championship prior to its long-awaited comeback this year.
Although McRae’s ability to switch between caution and all-out speed – backed up by Grist’s expert guidance – was key to those victories, the hard work and meticulous preparation from the M-Sport mechanics also played a key role and will be called upon again when the latest edition of Safari Rally Kenya takes place from June 23-27.
But while the 2021 Safari will still provide a stern test for car and crew, modern rally regulations have required a modern-day format to be adopted. This means a move away from the arduous routes of old with the overall competitive distance this year 16 kilometres shorter than the leg one total from 2002.
However, some traditions do remain with the popular Thursday afternoon start in the capital Nairobi maintained, while roads – and the stunning landscape – from Safaris of yesteryear are preserved on the itinerary.
As well as hosting the ceremonial start, crews will also tackle the Kasarani superspecial within Nairobi’s city limits on Thursday afternoon prior to returning to the event’s hub in Naivasha, 100 kilometres northwest of the capital. But the opening test is the only one of the 18 stages not based in and around the spectacular Great Rift Valley.
Friday’s route is made up of three repeated stages. Kedong is the longest of the entire event at 32.68 kilometres and runs in between the Chui Lodge and Oserian tests. Kedong is a tried and tested Safari stage, while Chui Lodge and Oserian take place within the Oserengoni Wildlife Conservancy Estate.
Crews head north to Lake Elmenteita for Saturday’s action and to three more stages each run twice. The Elmenteita stage, held in the vast Delamere Estate, is up first and includes roads used on previous editions of the event. Caution will be the watchword on the Sleeping Warrior test thanks to a rock-coated closing section, while Soysambu includes two river crossings near the finish.
Sunday’s route opens on the Loldia forest roads followed by the first visit to the Hell’s Gate Power Stage and the single use Malewa, an undulating test with 90-degree junctions and rocks waiting to catch out the unwary. Following the repeat of Loldia, the Power Stage is due to get underway at 13h18 local time.
Because WRC regulations don’t permit testing outside Europe, M-Sport Ford World Rally Team engineers have used data gathered from the recent world championship rounds in Portugal and Sardinia – the first events on gravel with the new-for-2021 Pirelli tyres – to help with their preparations.
Meanwhile, complicated logistics due to COVID-19 have resulted in Teemu Suninen’s planned WRC2 entry not going ahead, although Czech privateer Martin Prokop will compete under the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team banner in the category.
Team Principal, Richard Millener, said:
“Safari Rally Kenya really is a step into an unknown for our drivers and most of the team, but challenges are something we relish at M-Sport and we can’t wait to get started. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has created several logistical issues and has accounted for our slightly reduced presence in Kenya, but we’re competing in a world championship and it’s great for the WRC that we’re returning to Africa after such a long gap.
“We head to Kenya with plenty of reason to be optimistic. Gus has shown the progress we expected of him, while Adrien continues to underline his potential. We know it won’t be an easy rally by any means, but we’ve put in place a firm plan for them to follow. Getting to the finish and benefitting from that experience is part of it, but we’re also expecting to see some strong stage times during the event.”
After switching to WRC2 and an EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta Rally2 for Rally Italia Sardegna, Frenchman Fourmaux, 26, is back in a Fiesta WRC for his Safari debut. Following impressive performances in the top-level Fiesta in Croatia and Portugal, his Safari Rally entry provides a first opportunity to build on his gravel experience in the car.
Adrien Fourmaux said:
“It’s really good that the WRC is going back to Kenya. It will be a really big challenge and we know from the past how difficult this rally was. Okay, it’s a shorter event this time compared to the old WRC event, but it will still be hard and completely different to what we know.
“I’m a bit too young to remember watching the Safari Rally when it used to be in the WRC, but I have seen some videos and it was amazing to see the Ford Focus with the extra bars at the front. We will not have this protection but I am sure we will find some giraffes and elephants on the stages so it will be really interesting and for sure we will have to be careful!
“I have watched the video of the organiser. In some places we will have to almost stop because it’s really rough, but this is when we have to be smart enough to say, ‘okay this section we have to be slow but this section we can be fast’.
“It’s really nice to know the last driver to win the Safari in the WRC was Colin McRae in the M-Sport Focus. It will be really difficult to do exactly the same result although you never know because a lot of things can happen. But I want to stay quite humble. It’s an honour for me to do this rally and I can only say thanks to M-Sport for this opportunity. To go to Kenya is really good but with the WRC car it’s a dream and I can’t wait discover not only the rally but the humanity and the landscape.”
While team-mate Fourmaux once holidayed in Morocco, Greensmith has never previously visited Africa. The 24-year-old Briton heads to the great continent with Chris Patterson back on co-driving duties after Stuart Loudon deputised on Rally Italia Sardegna.
Gus Greensmith said:
“I was five when Colin McRae won the Safari for M-Sport and didn’t know what rallying was. But it’s obviously a cool thing he did and we’ve got the Safari Rally Focus that Colin won in in the main hall at M-Sport so every time I’m at M-Sport I pass the car. Clearly, it’s a very fond memory for Malcolm and the team and it would be great to get another good result.
“I’ve asked Malcolm plenty of questions about the Safari, but it was obviously so different back then with open roads and very long stages. It’s a very different challenge now and kind of new for the people of who have done it before. It’s definitely a trip into the unknown for me – I’ve never even been to Africa – but I’ve been watching the organiser videos for quite a while. Usually, I watch them religiously to become more familiar with the stages because it helps me to write better pacenotes, but because the roads are so undefined it’s been a different preparation for me. But I’m sure we’ll find more definition when we get there.
“From what I’ve seen I don’t think I can compare the Safari Rally to anything else I’ve done. But I have shown I can drive to the conditions when I need to, like when I won WRC2 on Monte-Carlo and in Turkey.
“We’ve certainly made some very good steps forward since Croatia. Chris is back in car on this rally and it will be helpful to have his knowledge. My aim for the remainder of the year is to be consistently in the top five and keep my pace going forward. There’s no reason why that can’t be possible.”