Rally preview: Safari rally

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Spiced with adventure

If you like your rallying. spiced with adventure, there is no substitute for going to Africa. Such a remark may offend those who derive great enjoyment from rallying in Europe or other areas of high population and traffic density, but the fact remains that although Europe can still provide adequate special stage events, suitable roads have become so over-used that familiarity has replaced what used to be essential elements of the sport — surprise, and the excitement of tackling the unknown.

In Africa, and in certain other regions such as the high Himalayas and the more desolate parts of Australia, the immense variety of terrain, the often violent extremes of nature, the need to be always prepared for the unexpected and the ever-present feeling of being something of a trailblazer, all contribute to a magic which has put rallies in these areas into a class of their own.

In that peerless category, one event is outstanding; Kenya’s Safari. Although it is still number one as far as we and many others are concerned, times have changed since the old East African Safari Rally.

The punishing, stamina-taxing formula which kept up its relentless pressure all the way from start to finish has gradually been diluted, due largely to demands from Europe firstly to cut out sections which could become impassable if it rains, and more recently to increase rest time and shorten distances.

Flooded drifts, washaways, broken bridges and bogs were all part of the rally’s character. If your route was blocked by such an obstacle, you simply searched for a way around it. And if you had the foresight during your recce to note potential trouble spots and record your own deviations, so much the better.

Many local crews were expert at such tactics, to the chagrin of the visitors. Section times were invariably impossible, and it wasn’t unknown for lateness to build up so much that instead of enjoying eight hours rest at the end of a leg, you were lucky if you got two or three.

The difference between today’s Marlboro Safari Rally and its forerunners is quite marked. Rest stops are longer and more frequent, producing some 50 hours of rest scattered among 40 hours of driving, and the total distance is down to some 2,500 miles. Bushmanship and the abilitiy to fettle damage with wire, nails, rope, a jack and a convenient tree trunk are no longer vital qualifications for the professionals, whose teams engage fleets of support vehicles and chase cars.

FISA has placed ridiculous limits on the lengths and total distance of special stages in world Championship rallies. The Safari has no special stages, and all timing is in minutes, but FISA nevertheless included the Kenyan event in the restriction, by insisting that the organisers declared which sections were competitive and which were not. The harm of this totally pointless constraint seems to be beyond FISA’s comprehension, unless it be by design, and serves as another illustration of the serious damage which can be caused when the internal affairs of a country are disrupted by meddlers from outside. A Safari with four-fifths of its route turned into no more than a tourist drive would be a joke. Could that be the intention, we wonder?

Fortunately, the Safari organisers are an astute, resilient bunch who know both the sport and their country very well indeed, unlike the organisers of some other events in Africa. What they have produced will be a tough test, even though the rest stops will take stamina off the list of prerequisites for success.

This year’s Safari will be divided into two legs, not three, as it was in years past when one leg went into Uganda and another into Tanzania, with rest stops at Kampala and Dar es Salaam. The first leg will been the North and the second to the South, but not as far as the coast.

One result of the reshuffle has been a dramatic increase in daytime running, which will undoubtedly please photographers and film makers, as they will be able to record scenes hitherto covered only at night.

The late Easter this year suggests a wet Safari, which will be a pleasant change after a run of dry or nearly dry ones. But nothing can be certain, and the works teams will prepare for both extremes of weather.

The rally will start at Nairobi at 2pm on Thursday, April 16, and finish there at 10am on Easter Monday. GP