Rally review: Safari Rally

Fighting off officialdom

Fifteen years have passed since Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm, driving a Ford Escort, became the first non-resident pair to prise the East African Safari Rally from the firm grip of the locals. Others from Europe have since followed Mikkola’s example, but it was not until this year that the experienced Finnish driver, partnered by his Swedish co-driver Arne Hertz, was able to set another mark on the record books by giving four-wheel drive its first Safari success, in an Audi 200 quattro.

Hitherto, simplicity has always defeated sophistication, and computerised all-wheel-drive amalgams of mechanics and electronics have consistently failed to overcome the long established configuration of an engine at the front driving only the wheels at the rear. More than any other event of its calibre, the Safari has always stressed the principle that the less complicated one makes a car, and the fewer the intricate innovations built into it, the greater the chance of its survival.

Audi’s success this year might appear to have reversed that principle. Or could it be that what for years has been considered innovative has finally broken the reliability barrier, and established itself as conventional?

The years between Mikkola’s first and second victories have seen more changes to the event itself than to the cars taking part. In the first place, demands by Uganda and Tanzania to have the rally based at Kampala and Dar-es-Salaam, in rotation with Nairobi, resulted in those two other capitals hosting the rally once each. Relocations were unpopular and unsuccessful, with the result that the route was subsequently compressed to be contained within the borders of Kenya, a country which has been a singularly admirable host to what became, with the discontinuation of its East African prefix, simply the Safari Rally.

Nothing has been lost by the change. The vastness of Kenya and its infinite variety of terrain, from open plains to dense bush, and from rugged escarpments to arid deserts or even humid swamps, have ensured that all its character, toughness and adventure have been retained.

The geographical change was necessary, but others have been totally without legitimate reason – changes forced upon the organisers by FISA’s haughty administrators who claim they were justified in the cause of safety.

In the heyday of Group B, the process of standardisation was pursued in the guise of safety measures. Organisers were forced to increase the frequency and duration of rest stops, reduce overall distances, and keep special stages below a maximum of 30km. this satisfied some drivers who were happy to be presented with more rest and less effort, but others felt the steam had been taken out of the sport. These advocates of endurance, of whom there are many, considered that standardisation had become sterilisation, and that rallying was in serious danger of becoming no more than a series of short, clinical point-to-point sprints, in which the spectacle of close racing was nullified by segration.

The rally which least followed the pattern FISA sought to inflict was the Safari, whose tremendous popularity and worldwide publicity always seems to be thorns in FISA’s side. When the premier rally of the Ivory Coast was elevated to the World Championship, there were hopes that this would at least equal the popularity of the Safari, but in West Africa they could not match the efficiency of the Kenyan organisers.

Principles which have become established in Europe and other areas of high population and traffic densities do not apply in remote parts of Africa and especially not in Kenya, where the Safari is recognised as the most important international sporting event in the country and gets the official support it merits.

Cars are so closely matched on European special stages that timing has to be in seconds in order to establish a leader. In Kenya, such fine timing is quite unnecessary, for on lengthy, demanding sections across rough bush tracks the minute has always been a short enough interval to produce a winner, save for one year only, when the tie-decider had to be invoked. Indeed, Kenya is the country where the expression “timing by calendar, not by clock” was born, and where a complete exception exists to the special stage rule.

The Safari has always been run on open roads, for the whole country recognises it for what it is, and the organisers have never found it necessary to create sterile special stages. However, the absence of such stages offended FISA’s demand for conformity. How could they insist that special stages be made shorter if there weren’t any?

They must have found such an exception to their precious rules difficult to accept, for the demand went out from Paris to Nairobi that the various sections of the 1987 route should be designated “competitive” or otherwise, and that the total distance of competitive sections  be no more than the total special stage distance allowed on other rallies. Furthermore, such competitive sections had to be timed in seconds, not minutes, a completely needless complication which only hindered the organisers. It transpired that seconds were of no eventual significance.

The organisers conformed by designating sections C (competitive), R (road) or S (service), which brought the route within the illogical margins created by FISA. Dictatorial honour was satisfied, but any inexperienced observers who assumed (as many did) that those letters were anything but token descriptions were just being gullible. “Service” sections were on tarmac, where the description was more or less appropriate, but the Safari was still the Safari, and playing with words was not about to transform it into a carbon copy of a European event.

Rest stops were quite another matter, and the organisers were forced to punctuate the route with far too many of them. Divided into two legs by a substantial overnight stop at Nairobi, the route was further divided by four more in the first leg and one in the second, providing some 50 hours rest in a rally spanning 90 hours in total.

“More stop than go” was how one veteran described it, complaining that the enforced stops interrupted his rhythm when he would have preferred to have pressed on, although there were some who openly welcomed the ample sleeping time each night.

The end of Group B has affected countries like Kenya far more that those with their own car manufacturing plants, for local industry is concerned more with commercial vehicles than private cars, on which there is a very heavy import duty. Privateers who have Group B cars and can continue to use them on national events, are reluctant to acquire a costly, homologated, imported car just for one rally, even if it is the most prestigious.

The number of starters was consequently on the low side, although a genuine 54 was substantially more than other African rallies can muster without resort to sticker scattering among tired family saloons. The professional content was high, with no fewer than eight factory teams in the list – Subaru, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, Opel, Audi, Volkswagen and Lancia –whilst privately entered makes included Peugeot, Citroen, Daihatsu, Mazda, Lada, BMW and Range Rover.

The drop in power from the high levels of recent years, coupled with the mixture of 4WD, FWD, and RWD among the potential winners, led to even more pondering than usual over the weather. Easter is about the time that the Long Rains begin, turning the country from brown to green within a day or two, and roads into rivers within minutes, but past years have seen their late arrival or even failure altogether. However, the late Easter of 1987 turned the possibility of a wet Safari into a very real probability, and teams amassed and scheduled their “mud cars”, crewed largely by experienced locals, with great care.

The four-car Subaru team consisted of 4WD RX Turbos for Vatanen/Tilber, Eklund/Whittock, New Zealanders Bourne/Lancaster and Kenyans Tundo/Thompson. Three RWD straight-six Toyota Supras were driven by Waldegard/Gallagher, Torph/Mellander and the local men who have helped the team so often in the past, Ulyate/Street. Nissan’s hopes, with four ZX200s, were pinned on Mehta/Combes, Zanussi/Amati, Kirkland/Nixon and Shah/Khan, but Audi’s involvement ran to just two 200 Quattros for Mikkola/Hertz and Röhrl/Geistdörfer.

Opel had just one of its little 2-litre Kadetts, making its first appearance in the hands of those hardy Safari perennials, Aaltonen/Drews. Two 16-valve Golf GTis came from Volkswagen, a team with longer experience of Group A than most, since it was tackling that category long before Group B was killed. Its drivers were Eriksson/Diekmann and Weber/Feltz.

Ford chose to bring two RWD Sierra Cosworths rather than its 4WD cars, one entered by Ford itself for Blomqvist/Berglund and other for Hellier/Williamson by Associated Vehicle Assemblies of Mombasa. Alas, Blomqvist’s car was destroyed two days before the start in a collision with a dead cow whilst being driven at night from Mombasa to Nairobi. Blomqvist took over Hellier’s car, and the local man a practice car.

Lancia chose not to send its entire entourage to Nairobi, but since Preston/Lyall had been using a Group A Delta HF in Kenyan rallies for some time, a token crew of engineers came from Turin to augment Preston’s own mechanics.

The first sections lay to the north-east, penetrating the foothills of he Aberdare Range before skirting Mount Kenya to the first rest stop at Nanyuki. After the Aberdares, Blomqvist was leading, but a fuel overspill fire put an end to that. A leaking tank had caused the Sierra to run out of fuel, and it was during the subsequent and somewhat hasty refuelling that the fire started, turning into quite a blaze before it could be put out. Earlier, dust had caused problems, and the first five runners had formed themselves into a convoy as overtaking became impossible.

Vatanen was slowed by the first of many punctures, whilst Eriksson’s remarkable early efforts came to nothing when he had to stop to replace a broken driveshaft. These parts have continued to give problems since the Monte Carlo Rally of years ago, when Eklund became very proficient indeed at fitting them and insisted on carrying them with him in the car. The practice has been continued, and roadside replacement is now reckoned possible in six minutes, although in this case the broken parts proved stubborn and Eriksson was held up for 20 minutes. Before the section around Mount Kenya, Waldegard had managed to escape the dust by reaching the head of the queue, an advantage which he used to good effect; it was he who was leading when the field arrived at Nanyuki that evening, some four minutes ahead of Mikkola. Blomqvist was delayed further when his differential oil cooler broke and the differential casing itself split on the approach to the town.

Both Mehta and Kirkland suffered dramatic delays when differential leaks caused rear end fires hot enough to explode their shock absorbers. Mehta exceeded his lateness as a result of this episode, but Kirkland managed to get going again with replacement parts after extinguishing the fire by driving into a river!

Friday’s sections went northwards to Wamba, then across desolate and often mountainous country to Baragoi before turning southwards past Maralal to the more vegetated region of Lake Baring and another stop at nearby Kabarnet. During practice, storms had produced instant rivers which had blocked this part of the route entirely, but dry weather during the rally itself meant everything was passable.

Dry weather was also raising that choking red dust with which Safari competitors are only too familiar, and the frequent passage of chase cars was not helping the situation. Works teams endeavoured to ensure their chase cars would not enter a section when competitors were about to do so, but they could only wait so long after their own competing cars had entered. Dusting was the inevitable result, with consequent bad feeling and strong words.

During the Friday, Mikkola slowly wore down Waldegard’s advantage, and by the time and field arrived at Kabarnet the difference was down to just over two minutes. Waldegard and Torph had each needed new rear hubs, whilst punctures had also caused delays. Eriksson, after this earlier delay, had got ahead of Röhrl, Preston and Stohl, but was still substantially behind the two front runners, whilst team-mate Weber had lost a whole hour having his gearbox replaced out in the wilderness near Wamba.  

Blomqvist’s chapter of misfortunes came to a climax at Kabarnet when he arrived beyond his maximum lateness. Further delays had been caused by a cracked exhaust manifold which caused vital wiring insulation to melt.

Not only Toyota’s Pirellis but Subaru’s Bridgstone tyres were also giving trouble, several having exploded quite violently. Bourne hit another rock and caused such severe damage that a rear wheel later fell off, whilst Tundo appeared red-faced at Kabarnet having put his car off the road on a corner he negotiates almost every day!

From Kabarnet the rally went into western Kenya, which has always been the least popular part of the route. Those who had never experienced it before soon realised why. At the Kisumu rest stop on the shore of Lake Victoria a mob ran riot, attacking not only rally cars but those of officials and pressmen.  

Rocks and chunks of wood smashed screens and dented body panels, and it was not until police charged through a blanket of tear gas that comparative order was restored.

Nobody felt at ease until Kisumu had been left far behind and the rally neared the tea country around Kericho. By this time, steep climbs had allowed Mikkola to use his superior power, and the steadily gained time on Waldegard.

Eriksson had continued to drive magnificently, coping with a broken alternator belt and often bettering the section times of much more powerful cars. Team-mate Weber lost time replacing a track control arm, whilst Aaltonen came to a complete stop until a chase car could get to him and replace a broken driveshaft.

Mikkola was first on the road on the return journey to Nairobi, which included the Forests of Chapalungu and Tinderet, a rest stop at Nakuru and a trip over the high country of the Mau Escarpment. Disaster struck Audi when Mikkola stopped with a dislodged turbo pipe, and he had to wait until a service car could get to him. After half-an-hour of frustrating waiting, he pulled out the stops to catch up, and was more than relieved to discover that punctures were continuing to be the bane of the Toyota team. Waldegard collected two on the same section, only gaining a usable spare when Torph turned back to donate one of his. When the rally arrived at Nairobi, Mikkola had again moved some nine minutes ahead.

An unfortunate retirement on the Saturday evening was Zanussi, who broke a shock absorber descending the Mau Escarpment and not only ripped out rear suspension parts but distorted the sub-frame locating points.

At the Sunday morning restart on the southern leg the skies were much darker than they had been during the first, and the possibility of a wet crossing of the Chyulus and the Taitas was very real. Mikkola seemed unconcerned about the weather for in his position he would have no dust on dry roads, and no serious problem in the wet with his four-wheel drive. By the time cars were into the Chyulu Hills the whole area between there and the Tanzania border was engulfed in an enormous and violent storm. However, the Chyulus themselves were dry, and the clinging seed of the long grass which covered the roads again threatened cooling systems by blocking radiator cores.

This is by no means a problem peculiar to the Safari, as any seasoned Kenyan bush traveller will vouch. The “hunting cars” of old used to have their radiators protected by mosquito netting, which did a most efficient job, but teams this year decided to use more substantial screens, and were somewhat dismayed when not only the seed but the grass itself penetrated the space between screen and radiator, causing blockage and overheating.

Waldegard’s engine began to overheat badly and they had to stop several times to remove grass and seed. Eventually, the Toyota engine decided it had had enough and the possibility of yet another Toyota victory was dashed.

On the cloudy, stormy afternoon in the Taitas, Mikkola’s alternator failed, and there became a very strong possibility that the ever-present Eriksson would take his Volkswagen to victory. But the team helicopter, flown in from Germany for the occasion, finally managed to get a replacement battery to the faltering Audi and Mikkola made it to the rest stop.

Meanwhile, the toll on Eriksson’s remarkable efforts was a bitterly disappointing engine failure, and one of the great performances of the rally came to a premature end. Audi, despite the company connections, must have been greatly relieved, for it would not have gone down at all well had their up-market vehicles been beaten by the people’s car!

What remained was routine. Röhrl found himself in second place on a rally for which he openly professes his dislike, but must have been disappointed nevertheless to be beaten by his Finnish team-mate.

Audi as a whole was delighted, of course. Having been victorious on many rallies with its Group B cars, it had now finally won the Safari with a big, heavy, family saloon. Behind the Audis, Torph took third for Toyota, whilst Weber upheld the Volkswagen flag by finishing fourth. Eklund was the best Subaru driver, and the highest-placed local man was that wily local wheat farmer Robin Ulyate.

Altogether, despite FISA’s meddling, the organisers again produced what must be the most competitive, most entertaining and most adventurous rally in the world series. Long may it keep that stature, but the Kenyans should make no bones about telling FISA to keep their hands off what is rightly claimed to be “The World’s Greatest Rally”. GP