The Björn supremacy

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The great Björn Waldegård claimed his fifth Safari rally success on his first visit to the Classic event
By John Davenport

With almost baffling ease, the great Björn Waldegård won his fifth Safari Rally in the first week of December. Driving an Historic Motorsport Ford Escort RS1600 navigated by his son, Mathias, he led for most of the way and was only headed for a single day of the nine-day event by the charging Gerard Marcy in a Porsche 911. Waldegård won the old Safari four times, the first in an Escort RS1800 in 1977 two years before he became the first ever World Rally Champion, and then three times in Toyota Celicas. This was his first win on the Safari Classic and brought to an end the domination of this new event – first held in 2003 – by local drivers.

Waldegård and Marcy shared the majority of the fastest times on the competitive sections between them. Marcy came out on top with 10 fastest times out of the 21 stages followed by Waldegård with seven. Next in the FTD league was local driver Ian Duncan, who was entered with Amaar Slatch in a fearsome-looking Ford Mustang. He set three fastest times before breaking his gearbox just before the halfway point and retiring. Earlier, Duncan had been delayed by having two punctures in one section and severing a brake pipe. Punctures too had delayed both Waldegård and his team-mate, Stig Blomqvist, so that by the end of day two Marcy led from Waldegård with Frédéric Dor third in a Porsche 911. He was just ahead of Blomqvist, with Duncan in eighth after his problems. But on the third leg, up into the infamous Kerio Valley, Marcy’s experienced co-driver Alain Lopes made an unfortunate navigational error. He was now running first on the road thanks to the re-seeding and it was thus an easy thing to do on an un-reccied event.

This brought Waldegård back into a lead that he was not to lose. Marcy had further problems on the last day of the rally when the Porsche stepped out of line in a slow corner and hit a rock, ripping the front suspension away from the body. When the road was opened, the Tuthill service got to him for repairs and he went on to finish a comfortable fourth despite a maximum penalty. For Blomqvist, things had not looked too bad until he entered Tanzania. He promptly broke a driveshaft and collected a maximum penalty, while the following day he was stuck for some time – with many others – in soft sand. He and co-driver Ana Goni eventually finished sixth and had just one fastest section time with which to console themselves.

Three British drivers distinguished themselves on their first visit to Africa. Steve Perez, partnered by Mike Stuart in a BTR-prepared Datsun 260Z, got to grips with the conditions well but was unfortunate enough to hit a large rock hidden in deep sand while doing about 80mph on a Tanzanian section. The driver’s side of the car took nearly all the shock and, while Stuart emerged unscathed, Perez damaged his neck. He drove some 60 miles out of the section but then was whisked off to hospital. Less misfortune troubled Geoff Fielding, who with Preston Ayres managed to keep their Tuthill Porsche 911 in the top 10 right from the first day. The odd puncture and broken damper towards the end of the rally was less than most of the entry suffered and resulted in Fielding finishing third overall. Considering that his objective had been merely to finish in the top 10, the smile on his face will probably not fade for several months. Equally impressive if slightly less fortunate in the matter of wayside troubles was Steve Troman. Accompanied by Martin Rowe – the third former world champion on the event after Waldegård and Blomqvist as winner of the 2003 Production Car WRC – Troman drove another Tuthill Porsche to finish 12th after an excursion on day six resulted in him collecting a maximum penalty thanks to a broken front suspension.

Englishman and Safari fan John Lloyd drove the ex-Mike Kirkland Datsun 240Z with Adrian Cavenagh and was running in sixth place when, in Tanzania, the big car went out of control and rolled. No one was hurt but the same could not be said for the car, which retired on the spot. Also rolling out of the event but much earlier than Lloyd were Iain Freestone/Rod Maclean in a Ford Escort RS2000 and Stefano Rocca/Piers Daykin in a 260Z, again with nothing but minor injuries. Freestone had some consolation since his two Escort Mexicos both finished with Jeremy Bennett/Tim Chesser bringing their example home in 11th place overall, showing you do not need oodles of power to do well on a Safari. One last roll was reserved for father and son, Jonathan and Quentin Savage, who had an end-over-end in their Datsun 260Z on the first day in Tanzania. They took the next day out to rebuild the car and finished the event in 20th place.

It was steady driving that netted second place behind Waldegård for Dor and Didier Breton in yet another Tuthill Porsche 911. They had their troubles after chasing Waldegård and Marcy in the early stages and finished the rally very short of fully operative dampers but still with a tidy motor car. The Porsche 911 line-up behind Waldegård was completed by Paul-Eric Jarry and Craig Redelinghuys in fifth place. Unlike For, Jarry was never trying to race at the front and his progress up the field was pretty steady, almost perfectly matching that of Fielding.

Behind Blomqvist came two South African-entered, Australian-prepared Datsun 180Bs driven by Roddy Sachs/Peter Young and Wayne Kieswetter/Rob Hellier. Sachs is an old Safari hand who drove and prepared cars back in the 1970s, so it was perhaps hardly surprising that he finished as best of the 180Bs in seventh place despite hitting a water buck and smashing his windscreen on a transport section just before leaving Kenya for Tanzania. A third 180B from the same team, that of Geoff Bell/Steve Harris, suffered some accident damage and carburettor trouble that saw them come home 17th, but the three Datsuns won the team prize, finishing with a grand total of some eight hours less than their nearest rival.

The best local crew were ninth-placed John Rose/Michael Borrisow in their Datsun 240Z, which had been specially built for Rose’s 60th birthday and presented to him at the beginning of November. And 10th was another 260Z, this time all the way from southern Australia and driven by Graham Alexander and Ross Runnalls. The final drama of the rally was provided by the Porsche 911 of Iqbal Sagoo and Jurgen Bertl, which caught fire on the penultimate transport section and resisted all attempts by those armed with fire extinguishers to control the blaze until Historic Rally Sport mechanics emptied 30 bottles of mineral water over it. It limped in to finally finish 13th.

The third running of the Safari Classic had proved to be at least as tough as its predecessors and had certainly delivered on its promises to competitors. And the good news at the finish was the announcement from Kenya Airways that it is continuing with its sponsorship for the 2009 event.

Rich pickings outside the WRC
With the WRC blowing hot and cold on the subject of private entries, many people have gone elsewhere to compete

At the same time that the Safari Classic was wending its sunny way round Kenya and Tanzania, the 2007 World Rally Championship was coming to an end in rather different climatic conditions at Rally GB in South Wales. It is no surprise therefore that those involved in the Safari had at least a passing interest in events 4000 miles away and that, in the evenings, there were discussions about the differences between the two events.

While both are international rallies and both have a distinguished past, there the similarities end. The Safari Classic has evolved most closely from its ancestor, the East African Safari, and runs over nine days covering 4400km of which 1500km are competitive sections. By contrast, Wales Rally GB has a total mileage of some 1200km of which 300km are competitive and it takes three days to complete. Its ancestor, the RAC Rally, at one time ran over five days and covered 3500km of which 870km were competitive.

If one casts one’s mind back 12 years or more to when the FIA and ISC started to get to grips with the WRC, one of the principal ideas was to restrict the number of entries in a WRC event to 60 of which 30 would be works entries – three or more cars from each of the nine or 10 teams – with the remaining places going to ‘coming men’ and local champions in Group N cars. This packaging of the events would enable multi-use of stages, better control of spectators and better value at any one viewing spot, as well as making it much easier to cover for television. All excellent ideas, especially as it provided a major opportunity to the national sporting bodies which hosted a WRC event to run a lesser ‘qualifying’ event six months beforehand in order to select the lucky people who would get the 30 places.

Sadly none took up the opportunity, while at the same time the FIA Rallies Commission broadcast a clear message that the WRC would not be needing droves of private team owners in future. Thus quite considerable numbers of well-heeled rally people started to look elsewhere to compete and, as happens in a free economy, events were devised and created to satisfy the demand. You don’t need to quote a long list of endurance events involving classic cars to prove the point. But this is where the big money in private hands has gone. You only had to look around the cars and service arrangements for the majority of the Safari Classic entrants – particularly for the Ford Escorts of Historic Motorsport, Historic Rally Sport and Freestone Rallysport plus the Porsche armada run by Tuthill Porsche – to realise that you were looking at WRC-type organisation and expenditure.

For reasons that are obscure to anyone who is not a WRC event organiser, the WRC events would like to get the affluent private owners back and doing their rallies. But the truth is that they are unlikely to do so. With events having all the appeal of the Safari Classic, to pay the same, or more, to be an unimportant cog in a hi-tech sprint event somehow doesn’t commend itself to those spending their own money.