Although within itself the sport of rallying knows no political boundaries, it has been difficult in the past for drivers from certain countries to take part in events organised in other countries, not because they were barred from actually competing but because diplomatic relations – or the lack of them – have prevented the issue of entry visas or at least made the process difficult and protracted.
Westerners have always been able to move in and out of Eastern European countries to take part in such events as the Polish Rally, the Vltava Rally and the like, but the old Russian Winter Rally was always impossible for practical purposes, although we recall that it was once won by a Finn.
In Southern Africa there is regular movement of competitors between countries, and Botswana annually hosts the Transkalahari Desert Race which is organised largely by people from neighbouring South Africa and which draws many of its entrants from that country.
Similarly, the current premier event of South Africa, the Castrol Radio 5 Rally, starts in Johannesburg but has much of its competitive distance across the border in the forests of Swaziland and even finishes at Mbabane, capital of that independent African kingdom.
This event is actually one of the six qualifiers of the Pan-African Rally Championship, a series which obviously has the support of each country concerned since it is inscribed in the FISA international calendar. The other events in that series are the Zaire Safari, the Safari Rally itself in Kenya, the Ivory Coast Rally, the Tour of Senegal and the Al Massira Rally in Morocco, although the latter has regrettably been cancelled for this year.
There is little point in grouping rallies into a series if the whole championship status of that series is diminished by restriction of movement of competitors between the countries running the various events.
There appears not to be a prohibition on Kenyans visiting South Africa. Many of them do, for sport, business, medical treatment and other purposes. But it is not all that easy for holders of South African passports to enter Kenya even though there are regular flights between the two countries by airlines other than those of the two countries concerned.
We know of several South African raIly drivers who would dearly love to compete in the Safari but are prevented from doing so by the complicated diplomatic processes which would engulf them. In theory, nothing prevents two-way movement between the two countries, but in practice it seems that officials are afraid to be the persons who actually stamp the visas and tend to pass the buck upwards where it becomes lost in even deeper reluctance.
Last month, one of the FISA-appointed observers of the Castrol Radio 5 Rally was Bharat Bhardwaj, chairman of the Safari Rally organisers, and it was predictable, even logical, that he should be asked about the free movement of competitors between their two countries. After all, if he, a Kenyan of Asian descent, were allowed to make an official visit to a South African Rally, why could Kenyan competitors not have made the trip, and why could South Africans not drive in the Safari?
These were questions which Mr. Bhardwaj must have been able to anticipate, and his answers were that “Basically it is a political problem. Kenya would like to bring teams down here first. That would be the first logical step. We would like to see South Africans on our event next year.”
If, in 1982, Sarel van der Merwe drives in the Safari Rally, and Shekhar Mehta in the Castrol Radio 5, an unseen but nevertheless formidable barrier will have been lifted. We could say that this would be a fantastic achievement, but it would in reality be no more than restoration of normal sporting facilities.
The Castrol Radio 5 Rally itself was this year won by Sarel van der Merwe and Franz Boshoff in a Ford Escort RS, but it was by no means an easy win. Several visiting professionals from Europe were there and at first it seemed that the local men would be outclassed.
An early leader was Opel’s Jochi Kleint in an Ascona 400, but various troubles delayed him and he dropped back. Kleint used to live in South Africa, when he drove regularly in the national championship, but the very fast stage roads chosen for this event were somewhat unlike those he remembered from his earlier years. Indeed, many said that they would have chosen different gear ratios had they known how straight and fast some of the forest roads were. The stages were secret until the start, of course, and no one was able to practise. – G.P.