NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 2 – Sébastien Ogier’s burning desire to extend his World Rally Championship career into 2021 is being perceived as an opportunity for Kenyan fans to savour a tremendous sense of Safari Rally camaraderie.
The six-time world rally champion and current leader had plans to hang-up his helmet at the close of the 2020 season but has candidly admitted that he has unfinished business with the rally-sport.
Ogier’s 2020 WRC Safari Rally debut came a cropper when the iconic Kenyan round was postponed to next year due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic situation.
But the 2020 Coronavirus-shortened season wasn’t the way Ogier wanted to exit the revered sport.
Ogier is said to be in discussions with Toyota Gazoo Racing to add another year to his stay.
Ogier told www.wrc.com: “This year is complicated, so I plan to do one more season. I currently have a one-year contract, but we have started to talk about it with the team.”
While no formal announcement has been made, Toyota team principal Tommi Mäkinen has previously made clear his wish to keep the current championship leader in a Yaris into 2021.
KCB Kenya National Rally Championship (KNRC) Division One Navigators’ Champion Victor Okundi believes Ogier’s presence at next year’s Safari Rally would be a mojor boost to local fans.
“Safari is one of the rallies Ogier has never won and the continent (Africa) he has never competed on. His presence in Kenya will definitely raise the profile of WRC Safari next should he seal a 2021 deal,” Okundi said.
“He will be fighting to eclipse the likes of Hyundai’s Ott Tanak. And both have never rallied in Kenya so it will be a battle to watch. The prestige that comes with winning the Safari in its return to the new format is definitely going to attract some serious global attention,” he added.
“I’m sure Ogier’s sponsors want to see their cash at work. Amongst the current crop of drivers his namesake Sebastien Loeb is the only one who did the Safari in 2002 and finished fifth.”
“Petter Solberg too has been to the Safari but we can’t consider him as he’s never gotten into a WRC car in the recent years.”
Former multiple Kenya Two Wheel Drive Champion Leo Varese on his part said: “Great news for Kenya and Safari next year to have a multiple WRC champion on the Safari line up in 2021 should he renew his contact.”
Ogier was left to rue WRC Safari’s postponement to 2021 in a past interview.
Asked about Ogier’s intended Safari dream, Two Wheel Drive competitor Sam Karangatha said: “Yes, it would be good to see Ogier as part of the 2021 championship fight, and to see which of the current WRC drivers can take the Safari win.”
Rich Millener, Ogier’s former boss at M-Sport Ford, said the Frenchman would continue to provide a benchmark if he extended his WRC stay.
“The sport needs drivers like Séb,” said Millener. “He is that benchmark performer. When you get a result against somebody like him then you’ve genuinely earned it. At the same time, it’s better for the sport to have as many top drivers as possible. What we don’t want is a few guys dominating.
“We worked with him for two years and had a lot of success in that time. He’s a good guy and the WRC needs people like him and Julien [Ingrassia, co-driver].”
Hyundai Motorsport driver Thierry Neuville, who has finished second to Ogier in four WRC campaigns, echoed those sentiments.
The Belgian said: “It’s definitely a good thing for the championship and for him. It would be the right decision to stay, you don’t want to end your career on a season like this one. We need names like Séb. It’s very positive news for the championship.”
Ogier expressed disappointment in not being able to compete on this year’s WRC Safari Rally. The Safari is a completely new event for the current generation of drivers.
The Safari hasn’t appeared on the WRC calendar since 2002 when Colin McRae and Nicky Grist secured a near three-minute victory over Harri Rovanperä and Risto Pietiläinen.
Safari joined the WRC in 1973 and has since 2002 served as a round of the FIA African Rally Championship ((ARC). The event featured on the all-new Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) calendar in 2007.
Reigning Safari and Kenyan Champion Baldev Chager on his part said it will be exciting for home drivers to brush shoulders with the big boys of WRC.
Chager nevertheless admits defending the coveted Safari title against WRC’s crème de la crème will be a tall order given the intricate nature of their high-flying WRC contraptions.
The KNRC log leader after KCB Guru Nanak and Nyahururu Rally has only driven in one WRC Safari in 1998 whereby he finished 15th overall with Tinu Khan in a Subaru Legacy.
“From the current group of drivers, I think it’s only myself, Ian (Duncan) and Carl (Tundo) that have done a proper Safari when it counted towards the World Series. The Safari at the time was a very long endurance drive and quite different from the present day sprint format we are going to expect next year.
All in all, it will be an amazing feeling being a part of WRC Safari. WRC drivers have a lot of experience from the whole world from racing in the desert to Argentina to Europe and rough gravel in Greece. So they’re not far behind and if you look at most of their team managers are actually rally drivers.”