Rally Review, June 1981

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Safari Rally

If there is any motor sporting event which gathers unto itself technologies quite unconnected with the automotive industry, and which is based on considerably more than just a straight light between competitors, that event is the Safari Rally.

Experts in the fields of aviation, telecommunications, meteorology and even tropical medicine all become closely involved with the rally, whilst unpredictable Africa provides every competitor with additional adversaries seldom encountered elsewhere.

This unpredictability gives the rally its unique element of adventure, unmirrored by any other rally in the world, which gives rise to greater excitement, a stronger sense of achievement for finishers and a level of popularity among competitors which other events would find hard to match even though distance and cost usually result in fields smaller than most others.

On the technical side, professional teams have learned that air support provides immeasurable service assistance, while the need to communicate with mechanics and team managers has progressed beyond luxury to necessity. Nowadays it is not enough to have radio in each car, for mountains and indeed the curvature of the earth prevent long range contact on the VHF frequencies which are, after all, limited to line-of-sight. Aircraft are used for radio relay, and this year the best arrangement was that of the Peugeot team which had a pressurised aircraft flying at 33,000 feet equipped with automatic relay units which provided constant car-to-car contact throughout the event, and the whole linked to an operations room on the top floor of Marshal’s House in Nairobi City centre.

Easter, traditional time of the Safari since the first one celebrated the coronation in 1953, usually brings the Long Rains, when violent storms saturate the earth and turn the countryside from burnt brown to lush green. They also cause floods, produce instant rivers, wash bridges away, obliterate roads completely and turn miles of otherwise firm roads into ribbons of deep, clinging mud.

It is vital to have some sort of advance knowledge of when the rains can be expected, for upon their arrival depends whether the route of the Safari will be through dry bush, swamp or a mixture of both. One condition produces dense clouds of choking dust, and the other blinding storms and endless mud. Tactics, as well as equipment, vary from one condition to the other, and it is important to have a very good idea before the start of the rally of what the weather is likely to produce.

This year Easter was late and the chances of heavy rain were greater than usual. Consequently no-one was really taken by surprise when violent storms began moving around the country in the weeks before the start. Competitors out on reconnaissance trips were delayed by broken bridges, landslides, floods and mud, while the organisers themselves became very occupied with collected information from these competitors and deciding whether, or where, to implement route changes to by-pass obstructions.

Another result of the weather was the near-impossibility to find four-wheel-drive transport in Nairobi, for practically every available vehicle had been snapped up by professional teams who needed as many as possible for use as “mud cars”. These would go ahead of the rally, report conditions back to competitors by radio, then wait at the most difficult places ready to give assistance to their competing cars if they got stuck.

Incidentally, our own gritted transport during event was a locally assembled Chevrolet 4-w-d pick-up truck with rear canvas tilt which, despite its mere 1.6 litres, never got stuck once.

The wet conditions must have been welcomed by the team of four, 4-w-d Dodge Ramchargers which were shipped from the United States, for theirs was a traction advantage which no other team could match. Unfortunately, it was their first Safari and they found to their surprise that it was much harder on cars than any of the Baja races in Southern California, which they had hitherto considered the toughest. Breakages delayed them considerably and they weren’t really able to put their advantage to its best use. Shock absorber mountings and roof pillars broke up regularly, whilst two of the cars retired with failed automatic gearboxes.

Peugeot was rallying long before that company’s link with Talbot was formed, but only because Marshalls Ltd., the Kenya importers, pushed them into it by competing successfully in the Safari and other East African events with the old 404. A works team of four 504 Coupes came from France, along with mechanics and supporters, but the administration and running of the team, as well as communications and staffing the operations room, were in the hands of men from Marshal’s, several of whose directors are themselves former successful Safari competitors. Unfortunately for Peugeot there are several mechanical features of the 504 which do not comply with that old rallying principle — if it’s not unbreakable, make sure it can be changed quickly — and when clutch thrust bearings began to seize there was just no time for three hour clutch changes.

Two cars retired for this reason, but a third completed the distance without any clutch at all, an amazing feat by Alain Ambrosino through all that mud and all those river crossings, only to be reluctantly but firmly excluded at the finish for losing his time card. That vital document, bearing times and signatures from all the controls, had been washed away along with other papers and possessions when they got stuck in a raging torrent which flowed right through their car.

The Opel team was only two strong, and although Kullang and Kleint are fine drivers the feeling was that they had insufficient Safari experience to challenge for a win. Kullang, after all, was tackling the event for the first time.

How wrong were those sentiments! Very soon after the start Kullang took the lead and indeed kept it until halfway through the second leg, driving at a pace which rather alarmed those who had planned to make a somewhat cautious start rather than a forceful one. Alas, soon after leaving Mombasa Kullang collided at high speed with a herd of cows and did so much damage that his car needed constant, time-consuming attention from that moment until well into the third leg when it finally stopped with a mysterious but total electrical failure.

The Datsuns, two 16-valve Violets, one 8-valve Violet, a Silvia and a Bluebird Turbo, all ran among the leaders, and when the Opel challenge vanished they were there to take over the first four places. The fifth car, the Bluebird driven by John Hellier, had retired after trouble with the fuel computer and a turbocharger change which took so long that he ran out of time.

Towards the end a fierce family feud developed within the Datsun team, one which the manager seemed powerless, or disinclined, to nip in the bud. Shekhar Mehta was running up front, and he was determined to complete his hat-trick of wins. Equally determined to win was Rauno Aaltonen, also running up front, eager to win after 18 years of trying.

A flash flood brought up a river near Marigat, and after about ten cars got through the remainder had to be pulled across by 4-w-d vehicles and some experienced delays of up to two hours. Mehta and Aaltonen both got through unaided, but Mehta later lost 12 minutes and Aaltonen later became so angry that the clerk of the course had scrubbed that section that he lodged a protest.

Two years ago there were exactly the same circumstances at exactly the same river crossing, and on that occasion the organisers decided not to cancel the section, so there was obviously good reason for Aaltonen’s concern.

Later, Aaltonen broke the centre bearing of his prop-shaft and was delayed over half an hour having it replaced. But he noticed that the distance of that section in the roadbook was far less than it actually was, so he lodged another protest, seeking cancellation of the section on which he had been delayed.

At the finish, the stewards, although they did not necessarily agree with the decision to cancel the river crossing section, found that the clerk of the course had a perfect right to make it, so Aaltonen’s first protest was disallowed.

But they allowed his second, thus cancelling penalties on the section where he broke his prop-shaft. Mehta immediately counter-protested, and an appeals tribunal reversed the stewards’ decision, reinstating those penalties. The outcome was that Mehta was declared the winner, but this was still provisional, for Aaltonen gave notice of appeal to FISA, and we must now wait for the ponderous process of Paris to decide. It was a rather sour ending to a really tough fight, and a great shame that it had to run on from the bush tracks, where it should have been settled, to the committee rooms of stewards and appeal courts. – G.P.