Extreme conditions and searing temperatures combine to make the eighth round of the World Rally Championship a true endurance test of driver and car. But the rough tracks of Africa have always emphasised the Skoda Octavia WRC's strength and reliability, finishing on the podium last year.

This season Skoda Motorsport have an all-new driver line-up, and the combination of youth and experience puts them in a strong position to pull off another good result.

This will be Kenneth Eriksson's sixth Safari Rally, and he is looking forward to the chance to put his Octavia WRC through its paces on rough gravel.

"The Safari is tough for crews and cars but I like it a lot," said the 46-year-old. "I enjoy long, fast stages and I believe we have a good chance to match what Armin Schwarz achieved last year."

Eriksson has finished second on the event in the past, and has been encouraged by recent tests of the Octavia WRC in Finland.

"We completed the test a few days ago and it was quite OK," said the Swede. "We had some differential problems on the Acropolis Rally, but they came from the Greek heat. In Kenya we expect lower temperatures, so I think everything will work well."

Drivers face all sorts of obstacles on the African round of the World Championship, including water-holes, dried-up rivers, and even giraffes.

Toni Gardemeister has less experience of the Safari than his team-mate Eriksson, but he has shown grit and determination on loose surfaces: traditionally the domain of Scandinavians.

Gardemeister last competed on the Safari in 2000, but had to retire when a door came off his SEAT and filled the car with dust.

"That happened on only the second stage, so I don't know much about the conditions," said the 27-year-old. "But I really like this event - it is a long, fast and open rally. After the test in Finland I am quite happy about our Octavia WRC. I think Safari suits our cars, and I'm optimistic about a great result."

Skoda Motorsport's third car will be driven by their young Czech prot?g? Roman Kresta. The reigning Czech champion is also tackling the Safari for the second time, having retired on the first day last year.

"Safari is a very exotic and difficult event - thanks to the weather and its sheer length," he said. "I'm looking forward to it, but the only concern I have is the rain."

Weather conditions in Africa are yet another fascinating element of the lottery that is the Safari Rally. Temperatures can fluctuate between baking heat and torrential rain. Bad weather is expected near Nairobi next week, but Skoda Motorsport team principal Pavel Janeba is confident they are well-prepared.

"The test in Finland showed that we can trust our Octavia WRC," he said. "For the African event, we have made several changes to the undertray and roof-vents, and we have also improved the car's waterproofing. The Safari Rally is notoriously hard, and we have only been there twice. Our first season was a learning year, but I think we showed our potential with third place in 2001. We've got the chance to get a really good result in Africa - and I'll be happy with at least one Octavia finishing in the points," he added.

The Safari Rally, based in Nairobi, is the longest round of the World Championship - covering approximately three times the competitive distance of the other events.