Rally review

Marlboro Safari Rally

With the possible exception of sun-hungry tourists, the coming of Kenya's Long Rains is always welcomed, even celebrated, by both people and animals, but one large section of the community invariably remains non-committal about weather preferences; those concerned with the country's premier sporting event, the Marlboro Safari Rally.

In those days, you tackled whatever Mother Nature chose to provide, and if your path was blocked by a ten foot drift in raging flood, you just had to find a way around it. If the road ahead had become nothing more than a deep mud bath, you took to the bush and picked your way through the thorn trees.

Times have changed, and the need to conform to standards set in Europe for World Championship events — standards with which we do not necessarily agree — have caused the organisers to make the rally gradually less demanding. Rest stops, for instance, are far more plentiful than they were, and roads are chosen for their "all-weather" characters. What is more, a whole bookful of alternative routes is published in advance so that if any section looks like becoming impassable, a change can be made at the press of a microphone button.

Today's competition is certainly no picnic, however, and the modern Safari is still worthy of its claim to be toughest in the world, even though farmers and other up-country dwellers smile when they hear of alternative routes around roads which they have to use in all weathers. Alternatives or no, even "all-weather" roads can become very sticky indeed when it rains, especially when they are both twisty and steep uphill, and it is the possibility of such conditions which makes it vital for every team manager to have plans catering for both wet and dry going. Service vehicles, including tyre and fuel trucks, must be available in sufficient numbers to cover the whole route, just in case any get stuck in mud; chase cars must be ready to pursue their precious charges into difficult sections; mud cars must be organised to make immediate pre-rally recces, just as ice-note cars do in Monte-Carlo, and their crews prepared to wait at any difficult bits to give tows if necessary; air support must also be organised, even if only to act as airborne radio relay stations to maintain vital communications. The organisers need no aircraft, for their VHF network is based on repeater stations on strategic mountains along the route. This year there were more factory teams taking part than the event has ever seen, with full-scale appearances from Audi, Opel, Lancia, Nissan and Toyota, and even representation from Citroën, Subaru and Daihatsu. Depending on the characteristics of their cars and the preferences of their drivers, each team was hoping for a particular kind of weather condition for the rally. Indeed, it was rather amusing to see those responsible for such a wealth of sophisticated and technically advanced machinery spending so much time gazing at the sky. It would not surprise us to discover that some had even cast bones upon the ground!

Audi wanted it wet, of course, to reap the best possible advantage from the Quattro's four-wheel-drive trantmission. Lancia, with its fast, strong, rear-engined car, wanted it reasonably dry, whilst Opel, Nissan and Toyota seemed to want it on the dry side, with just enough rain to lay the dust. Dust can be just as serious an obstruction as thick mud, for in no-wind conditions the dense, red-brown clouds can hang over a road for as much as ten minutes before thinning sufficiently to allow reasonable visibility. Overtaking can become not just hazardous, but quite impossible, whilst eyes become red and sore and voices hoarse and cracked. Engines, too, can suffer, and it takes a really good filter to keep out fine, almost gaseous, African dust.

Toyota's biggest concern during practice was overheating, so they took a car to the high, twisty roads of the Taita Hills and drove it hard uphill in the heat of the day, gradually applying more efficient cooling methods until the temperature remained at an acceptable level even when driven hard at noon. This took a great deal of time and effort, but it was all worthwhile, for Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorszelius took one of their cars to a splendid victory, made all the more remarkable by the fact that this was the first ever team appearance of Toyota in the Safari.

The route this year was divided once again into three legs, each starting and finishing in the spacious grounds of Nairobi’s Kenyatta Conference Centre, which must be the most impressive start location in the world. The first leg went southwards to Mombasa and back, via sections through the vast plains of Amboseli and Tsavo, in the hills of Taita, Shimba and Machakos, and in the bush and sisal areas around Rukanga. The western foothills of Kilimanjaro were skirted, just outside the Tanzania border, but the Chyulu Hills were not visited since that area has been declared part of Tsavo West National Park in an effort to prevent erosion caused by charcoal burners.

The second leg went “around the mountain,” first climbing the Mau escarpment behind the lakes of Naivasha, Elmenteita and Nakuru, on through Nyahururu (formerly Thompson’s Falls) and Rumuruti, passing close to Maralal and returning via Don Dol and Nanyuki before skirting Mount Kenya, winding through the Aberdare Forest and re-entering Nairobi from Thika.

The third leg was all in the West, first crossing the Mau again, penetrating the dense Tinderet Forest, and going via Kisii, Kakamega and Kitale to the most northerly point of the route at Kapenguria, not far from Mount Elgon and the Uganda border. The return trip was via Eldoret, a crossing of the Kerio Valley, Nakuru and yet another visit to the Mau.

It was indeed a fine route, though there were more time controls this year than ever before, 105 in all, largely because of the need to separate competitive sections from the traffic-ridden roads of towns. The cloverleaf-like pattern of the three legs spans a huge area, and although not so many years ago Safari communications were very much hit and miss, the present radio network, very similar to that of the Cyprus Rally, puts many European rally communications systems to shame.

There were occasional dark clouds on the day of the start, but no rain. Nevertheless, it was rather a surprise, even a disappointment, to the organisers when hardly a minute was lost by the first ten runners all the way down to the Taita Hills. But in those mountains Blomqvist (Audi) and Waldegård emerged joint leaders, each having lost one minute. At last there was a running order worth talking about, and it was already well towards the end of the afternoon.

Just as the going became tighter, the problems appeared. First Eklund hit a bridge rather violently and seriously damaged his Toyota. A service car was despatched to his aid, but the repair took so long that he eventually went beyond his maximum lateness (2½ hours between Taita and Mombasa).

At Mwatate, after the Taitas, Michèle Mouton arrived asking mechanics to check a misfire on her Quattro. After a few minutes she went on her way, only to radio for help from just seven kilometres into the Sisal Plantation with a completely dead engine. It took Audi a little time to get organised, using both chase car and helicopter, but team manager Gumpert had to drive to where his helicopter was parked, about a mile away, which seemed to defeat the object of having a helicopter in the first place. Meanwhile, Mouton, using very explicit English words on her radio, asked mechanics to tell her what she could do, but it wasn’t until help arrived that the problem was traced to a cracked rotor arm. This had stopped the engine suddenly, without the tick-over cooling down period demanded by a turbocharged engine. The heat build up was so great that even with a new rotor arm the French girl couldn’t make much progress.

Meanwhile, team-mate Blomqvist had stopped just beyond Rukanga with no oil pressure. Off went the helicopter again, and Blomqvist was eventually given a new oil pump. Alas, he stopped again, just a few miles on, his rotor arm also cracked. But his engine hadn’t been as hot as Mouton’s so the sudden stoppage did not affect the turbocharger and he was able to continue with the rotor arm originally fitted to get Mouton on her way.

All this took time for Audi, and when all the work was over the brief equatorial twilight had become total darkness, which meant that the helicopter, not equipped for night flying, had to be left out in the bush until morning. Imagine the scene at first light when the pilot and crew went out to it by car and couldn’t find the spot where they’d left it!

Before Mombasa, more odd minutes were lost, and at the short stop there Mikkola (Quattro) held a one minute lead over Waldegård (Toyota) and Alén (Lancia). Three more minutes behind was Mehta in a Nissan, followed at one minute by Preston (Lancia) who had given his team much valuable information after several months using a Lancia in Kenyan National rallies.

The most unfortunate incident at this stage of the event was that which put out Mike Kirkland. He was standing near his car as it was being quickly fettled before the control when along came a non-competing car and bowled him over. The car roared off without stopping, leaving Kirkland in agony on the ground, his leg broken. We trust he makes a speedy recovery, though it must have been even more galling to learn that the hit-and-run driver, after being brought to book, was fined a paltry few hundred shillings – though that has yet to be confirmed.

On the return trip, Salonen moved back up to eighth place by the time the field reached the Taita Hills Lodge for the second time, having earlier lost a chunk of time after hitting a drift too hard and breaking his steering. Austrian Wittmann needed a new rear axle for his Quattro, whilst fellow-countryman Wurz in a similar car had gone out when his fuel tank was topped up with water. The same mistake stopped the Lancia of Greg Criticos, a local coffee farmer, but he was able to have the system drained in time to continue.

Further up the road to Nairobi, Shekhar Mehta, comfortably sixth after having been third, encountered an oncoming matatu a country “minibus” made by fitting a rear body to a pick-up truck, and usually grossly overloaded and unstable. The violent sideswipe made a mess of the body and almost ripped out the rear axle, but a following chase car was able to donate its own rear axle fairly quickly and Mehta finished the leg in eighth place, but a good hour behind the leaders.

Positions at Nairobi were: Waldegård 42, Mikkola 43, Alén 45, Aaltonen (Opel) 49, Frequelin (Opel) 51, Preston 60, Munari (Toyota) 99, Mehta 102, Wittmann 108, Salonen 124.

The pace was likely to quicken in the second leg, although the roads were generally more twisty. But it certainly did not produce as many problems as the first leg. Indeed, people said afterwards, when the whole rally was over, that everything seems to happen in the first leg, leaving nothing for the second and third.

There were a few small mudholes near the Mau Escarpment, evidence of a light shower or two, but there was still no real rain. But at least there was a strong wind, which helped disperse the dust rather quickly.

Blomqvist’s master switch became faulty and had to be changed, whilst Mikkola’s electronic wastegate control stopped working and was replaced. Lancia gearboxes were being checked carefully, especially since Alén had lost his third gear in the first leg and had the ‘box’ changed in Nairobi. Preston’s car was jumping out of gear and had lost first.

After dawn had broken over a completely clear and cloudless Mount Kenya, a truly awesome sight, cars were lightened by the removal of lamp clusters and, in the case of the Lancias, the shedding of their roof-mounted spare wheels. Alas, the lightening may have been carried too far, for Alén ran out of fuel and could only get going again after helicopter assistance. Preston broke a driveshaft and Aaltonen had to replace his oil pump drive belt and fan belt after one had broken and removed the other.

We have so far not mentioned punctures, for there were so many that it would take a complete page to list them. Wittmann had no less than five in the first four hours of the rally! But Waldegård almost lost his lead over Mikkola towards the end of the second leg when the jack turned out to be stubborn. However, the three of four minutes which they lost still left them with a nine minute lead. Mikkola, on the other hand, was struggling with a misfire, and mechanics strived to put this right so that the car would be in good shape for yet another Waldegård/Mikkola duel. It was this pair who tussled for the title in the first year of the drivers’ championship, and they have had several repeats in their time.

Alén lost time with difficult gear selectors, as Preston did, whilst Frequelin dropped more than 40 min with puncture and a rear axle change. Waldegård, too, needed a new rear axle, not to mention a spot of welding at its supporting points. Salonen’s rear axle supports, too, had to be subjected to the welding rod.

The 37 survivors were led out of Nairobi on the third leg by Waldegård 75, Mikkola 84, Aaltonen 86 and Alén 101. Mikkola was obviously pleased by reports that there had been rain in the west, and eve more pleased that his misfire had been cured.

Frequelin stopped with engine failure early in the third leg, whilst a broken camshaft drive belt stopped Blomqvist a few hundred kilometres later, putting an end to a fine drive. At this stage, factory mechanics were beginning to take an interest in privateers as well as their own cars, since the closing of number gaps brought them closer together, and Criticos was delighted with the extra help.

The gap closing also prompted the leaders, well separated in penalties but not so much actually on the road, to jockey for positions at controls in efforts to get ahead of rivals’ dust. At Londiani, Mikkola and Waldegård arrived on the same minute and roared off together, the Quattro’s greater power enabling it to get ahead, though the Toyota still led on the chart. A few minutes later, Mehta and Preston did the same thing, to the delight of the crowds.

The steam went out of the main duel when Mikkola stopped to have a broken rear axle fixed, but he only dropped to third place and thereafter was pressed by Alén only four minutes behind. This put the wily Aaltonen in second place, a position which he has occupied on many occasions in the Safari.

Munari, after using several batteries and alternators, eventually ran out of time after mechanics just couldn’t trace a wiring fault, thought to be deep inside a harness, whilst Preston dropped a few places having a broken left front shock absorber replaced. Alén had been hand-throttling his Lancia after the pedal cable had snapped, whilst Salonen’s Nissan was given a full can of Radweld to stop a small leak. Must be better than egg white or maize meal, we suppose!

A little rain had made roads slippery in places during the Sunday night, but there hadn’t been enough to create deep mud. Preston needed a new alternator, whilst Salonen’s gearbox started leaking so badly that a chase car had to be cannibalised so that he could be given a new box.

Aaltonen’s bid for his first Safari win in some twenty years of trying became less significant when he lost every gear except fifth near Chebiemit, although the resulting box change only cost him eight minutes. From that moment, his chances of snatching a win from Waldegård became very slim indeed, for the Swede’s Toyota ran reliably to the Monday afternoon finish in Nairobi. It hadn’t been a faultless run, of course, for there had been many little problems along the way, but nothing major had impeded the Celica’s progress, which in itself had been of great concern to its driver who kept expecting something to go wrong.

For Toyota team manger Ove Andersson, himself a former Safari winner, the result was more like a dream than reality and he confessed that he had to pinch himself several times. The outfit, perhaps more cosmopolitan than any other, is one of the most efficient in the game and everyone concerned with the success deserves a chunk of the kudos. Whether the team will increase its programme in the future remains to be seen, but two World Championship wins, both in Africa, in the space of six months must make the company executives in Japan sit up and take notice. – G.P.
Results
1st : B. Waldegård / H. Thorszelius (Toyota CelicaGp. B) 2 hr 02 min
2nd: R. Aaltonen / L. Drews (Opel Manta 400 GpB) 2 hr 13 min
3rd : H. Mikkola/A. Hertz (Audi Quattro GpBI 2 hr 25 min
4th : M. Alen /1. Kivimäki (Lancia Rally GpB) 3 hr 08 min
5th : S. Mehta / R. Combes (Nissan 240 RS GpB) 3 hr 35 min
6th : V. Preston Jnr / J. Lyall (Lancia Rally GpB) 4 hr 14
7th : T. Salonen / S. Harjanne (Nissan 240 RS GpB) 5 hr min 52 min
8th : F. Wittmann / P. Diekmann (Audi Quattro GpB) 7 hr 37 min
9th : Y. Iwashita / Y. Nakahara (Nissan 240 RS GpB) 7 hr 56 min
10th : B. Criticos / J. Rose (Audi 80 Quattro GpA) 9 hr 53 min
76 starters, 25 finishers.