Drivers keen to see Kenya's Safari Rally remain part of the world championship

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French driver Sebastien Ogier in action in Safari Rally in KenyaFrance's seven-time champion Sebastien Ogier wants Kenya's Safari Rally to stay part of the world championship

The dust may have barely settled on the Safari Rally's return to the World Rally Championship calendar after a 19-year absence but host nation Kenya is already planning for its future.

The country's initial agreement with motorsport's world governing body, the FIA, is a deal to host the event, which ended on Sunday, until 2023.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta is confident that the deal can be extended.

"We have agreed with the (FIA) as well as the World Rally Championship (WRC) to continue hosting the safari in Kenya until 2026," he announced during the post-race awards ceremony.

The FIA is yet to comment on the future of the Safari Rally beyond 2023.

One man who wants the race to return as a regular on the calendar is no less than France's seven-time world champion Sebastien Ogier, who won this year's rally after three tough days of driving.

"The WRC needs diversity and I think it is nice this weekend was definitely entertaining," he told BBC Sport Africa.

The 2021 Safari Rally certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the toughest races on the calendar with the rough terrain taking its toll on both man and machine.

Belgian driver Thierry Neuville in action at Kenya's Safari RallyBelgian Thierry Neuville was on course to win the Safari Rally until an accident forced him out on the final day

Ogier had suffered early in the race, losing time and dropping down the leaderboard, and despite clawing his way back into contention, his victory was handed to him by the retirement of Belgium's Thierry Neuville on the final day.

"Honestly, I wasn't thinking a win was possible anymore," Ogier explained.

Neuville looked set for the win when his Hyundai i20's rear suspension broke, forcing him to retire, so allowing Ogier to snatch the win from his Toyota team-mate Katsuta Takamoto from Japan with Estonia's Otto Tanak third.

Tanak echoed Ogier's thoughts about the future of the event in Kenya, saying "there's space for the Safari."

Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala, a former driver, also welcomed the gruelling nature of the event, which took place in Naivasha, nearly 100km north-west of Nairobi.

"When we did the recce , I said 'yes, definitely this is like an old Safari Rally'," the Finn told BBC Sport Africa.

"The only difference was that the stages are shorter and they are closed (on private roads). There was a lot of drama and things happening on the event - it was a challenge for the drivers.

"I don't think it (the rough terrain) will scare but for sure there is a long list for a manufacturer of things we have to improve and do for the rally, so I would say absolutely, it's not scary."

Local success

Kenyan driver Onkar Rai in action on the Safari RallyKenyan Onkar Rai was the highest-placed African driver on the Safari Rally

Kenya's Onka Rai was the best-placed African after winning the WRC3 category and finishing seventh overall.

The 33-year-old had mixed feelings about the race after his older brother rolled his car on Friday and had to be airlifted to hospital, where he is still receiving treatment.

"It was bittersweet," he BBC told Sport Africa.

"I can't describe the feeling. It has been a boyhood dream to be able to participate in the WRC and be alongside legends like Seb Ogier and the rest of the team - a dream come true.

"My brother is on the way to get some more treatment and we got the win, so we are proud, and he is proud. Definitely, this is for him."

The WRC circuit heads back to Europe, with Estonia the next stop in the 12-leg series starting on 15 July.

In Kenya, they leave behind optimism that this will be the beginning of a long relationship and that the competition will boost both the local and regional motorsport industry.

"When you have a world championship level event in a country, it helps the whole system," FIA Rally Director Yves Morton told BBC Sport Africa.

"It will help the African championship because the level of entry by local drivers shows there's interest in the discipline."

Nearly 30 Africans were involved, the majority of whom were Kenyan but Uganda provided a team while South Africa and Zimbabwe also had navigators in the race.

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