The Safari Rally

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When overseas competitors returned from practising along the route of the 1976 Safari Rally some of them made general comments that the “toughest rally in the world” had become soft, that the rough roads had become smooth and that it was all going to be too easy. How wrong they were. Those visiting professionals were whittled down as the rally progressed and the eventual winners were local men, Joginder Singh and David Doig, in a Mitsubishi Lancer, a car of just 1.6-litres. It was Joginder’s third Safari win and he led home a trio of the Japanese cars to fill the first three places, a resounding victory which was somewhat blanketed by sadness at the death of the team’s chief mechanic when his service car crashed during the third leg of the rally.

The route of the 1976 event was very similar to that of last year, shortened a little by the removal of certain roads which were known to become impassable during the rainy season. Because these are certain dry-weather-only roads is not to say that other roads will not be blocked by the effects of sudden rain. Any road in Kenya is liable to flooding or complete washaway at the start of the wet season when the rain can be at its heaviest, and that represents a risk which everyone, competitors and organisers, knows to be one of the Safari’s perennial ingredients. The Safari has no special stages—it needs none—and the competitive element is based on dirt tracks through the bush and over rocky escarpments, linked by easier sections on tarmac roads and relatively smooth dirt ones. Compared with last year, the times for this year’s competitive sections were marginally less, but still there were people cleaning them during practice. However, practice can hardly be compared with the event itself, for there is generally more time to fettle a car and get it up to scratch. Before the rally started, some target times were reduced and others were not. The result was a series of total penalties which were less than before, and some sections which were, in fact, cleaned. But there is a hidden price to pay for cleaning a section; cars become tired very quickly, and after a series of very good times there usually comes a bad one caused by some mechanical fault or other.

Those who complained that the Safari had become soft must have had red faces at the end, for the winner was the man who had not gone flat out from the start, just sufficiently quickly to hold his own, knowing that car sympathy was vital for a good result. More often than not it is better to go at less than flat-out speed, sacrificing a few minutes in order not to spend many more minutes fettling the car at the end of a section. It is significant that even the winner lost a total of very nearly two hours.

During the first evening of the rally a sudden, violent thunderstorm produced flash floods along the route from Nairobi down to Mombasa. Raging torrents rose in minutes, cutting the field in two and effectively stopping the second half of the runners. The delay was eventually of such proportions that these unfortunate competitors were time-barred even before they had got their teeth into the event. A controversy arose over whether they should have been allowed to continue many hours late, whether the front half’ should have been kept at Mombasa until the rear half had caught up, and whether that part of the route affected by the floods should have been deleted from the results.

To allow the delayed cars to continue hours after time would have been dangerous, for in the south some sections were used twice (in opposite directions) and this would have given rise to two-way rally traffic in narrow, difficult sections over the Taita Hills and along the narrow bush roads around MacKinnon Road and Rukanga. As it was, some competitors went on after being told that they were out, and there were a few heart-stopping moments on those narrow roads as cars on their way back to Nairobi met back-markers still making their way southwards.

The Lancia effort came to almost nothing when Waldegard’s Stratos seized its engine in the first hours and Munari stopped for a similar reason later on. Preston, the local man engaged by the works team, continued to the end but his was a case of fettling all the way, dealing with all manner of breakages, and at one time using spare parts dropped to him in the bush from one of the team’s service aircraft.

The Opel Kadetts all broke their differentials in turn, presumably owing to overheating, but Rani was put out when his car was struck by a taxi in a township in the north. The cars seemed to have been built with suspensions far too low for African terrain, although they did take care of such things as fitting mesh over the windscreens to ward off any stones which might have been thrown.

Of the Peugeots, the two new 504 Coupes succumbed to engine failure, Mikkola’s when the head gasket blew and Makinen’s after an immersion in a river. Both Lampinen and Nicolas went on to finish well, but it was again the wily Bert Shankland who emerged the best-placed Peugeot driver, underlining once more that endurance is far more important than sheer performance in the Safari. The Datsun team had a miserable event, although Mehta did take the lead early on, and Lawrence-Brown later. Oil loss and subsequent seizure was the primary cause of retirements, though Kallstrom survived several misfortunes to finish seventh and Rhemtulla a high-speed crash and a multiple roll to finish eighth.

The winning Mitsubishi trio were amazingly reliable, Joginder only having to replace shock-absorbers. There was a most unfortunate incident when an African spectator ran out in front of his car and was killed instantly, but after formalities were observed he was allowed to continue. Andrew Cowan and Johnstone Syer were almost put out of the rally when, whilst stuck in a patch of mud, their Lancer was struck squarely in the rear by the Datsun of Rhemtulla, who tried to charge his way through the mud and lost control. The collision caught co-driver Johnstone Syer when he was half out of a door, and it is to the credit of his stamina and endurance that he continued in the rally with broken ribs, helping Cowan to third place.

Despite all that has been said about the Safari getting soft (much of it being so much hot air) the rally is still superbly tough and demanding. Africa’s constantly changing conditions are adversaries which have to be treated with a great deal of respect, and those who allow nonchalance to override, that respect usually end up among the non-finishers.—G.P.

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