Reflections on the Safari Rally

Have you ever tried to categorise something which defies categorisation? Do you sometimes ponder whether the “miscellaneous” file is appropriate for that exceptional document, or whether that irregular-size bolt should go in the same tray as those of another size or be given a special tray all on its own? The neatness of orderly classification, where everything has an explicitly defined pigeonhole, may be fine for systematic disciplines but, as my old mathematics tutor used to say, apples and oranges don’t mix, and nothing in the world will get them to follow the same rules.

The dissimilarity between apples and oranges, not to mention a host of other incomparables, is one which is shared by rallying. Common factors can be found in both cases — fruit has stalks and leaves; rallying has cars and timing — but no two events are the same, the differences standing out just as sharply as the likenesses.

One of the main reasons for rallying’s evolvement in the first place was the dissatisfaction felt by some motor sportsmen with the repetition of circuit racing. They wanted something which was competitive but much longer, took them to new ground, included a generous element of adventure and appealed to their sense of fun. Climatic variety was also high on the list, so there were rallies in both winter and summer, and to provide some extra spice there was plenty of night driving. As each rally became established, so it developed its own character. In Finland, the Thousand Lakes Rally ran on smooth dirt tracks but had so many blind crests that cars were airborne almost as much as they were on the ground. In Greece, the Acropolis Rally used rough, rocky tracks through the mountains, all timed so tightly that even a stop for a tyre change brought the risk of a time penalty. In East Africa, the Safari was long and unrelenting, with lateness generally of an order much greater than in Europe, and the everpresent risk of sudden and violent weather change to make it even more difficult.

As vehicle density in Europe increased, so special stages on closed roads became necessary to segregate the competition from normal traffic. Of necessity, those stages were much shorter than sections which were previously held on open roads, so the unit of timekeeping had to be reduced from a minute to a second in order to avoid ties. The similarities between different European rallies became greater, but there were still enough differences to preserve character.

In most parts of Africa, however, there has never been a real traffic problem outside the towns. Furthermore, effective road closures are impossible out in the bush, so the East African Safari Rally, later just the Safari Rally and now the Marlboro Safari Rally, runs extremely well as a highly competitive event without having to resort to special stages or the use of seconds for timing.

In this respect, the Safari remains one of the last pillars of old fashioned, honest-togoodness rallying, its route format not unlike those of Welsh road rallies of the Sixties. Of course, its organisers use modern techniques (it shares with the Cyprus Rally the distinction of having the best non-cellular radio communication system in the sport, based on a network of mountain-top repeaters), but the contest itself is as rigorous as ever, demanding far greater tenacity and determination than the faster but shorter events of Europe, in which the actual competition is confined to relatively short bursts.

At FISA’s insistence, the Safari has used special stages timed in seconds, but they were not successful and quite superfluous as far as results determination was concerned. This year, for example, the winning margin was over 38 minutes, far higher than the usual European margins, whilst the span between first and tenth finishers was more than 22 hours! Who needs seconds when a calendar might be just as appropriate?

Some have said that even in Kenya the competition should be completely separated from all other traffic. How do you convince a Masai in the middle of the Great Rift Valley that he should not drive his cattle across a bush track? Knowing that the roads are not totally closed, competitors drive accordingly. The very phrase special stage has become synonymous with total, clinical segregation, and such sections would undoubtedly tempt drivers into 100% acceptance of this even though complete closures are impossible. Thus the event is actually much safer without special stages.

We would also make the point that in no other country in the world have we known a major rally to be so widely accepted among the entire population. It is the biggest international sporting occasion in the country, is acknowledged throughout the land, and acclaimed with excitement wherever it goes. Passers-by in Nairobi’s streets, farm workers in remote areas and up-country school children will all rattle off names from the entry list, whilst even our Masai cattle herdsman will know exactly when the rally will pass, and where. All of this contributes to the safety of the event, and woe betide a truck driver who attempts to drive along a track about to be used by the rally; the bystanders will soon convince him that he should delay his journey for a few hours!

Some years ago, but long after they stopped competing, Erik and Pat Carlsson were revisiting Kenya on holiday and, naturally, they chose a time spanning the Easter weekend. They pulled up for petrol at a filling station on the outskirts of Nairobi, and were astounded when Erik was greeted by the attendant, “Welcome, Mr. Carlsson. It is good to see you back in Kenya.” That was partly due to Erik’s unforgettable personality, but partly also to the high level of interest in the Safari and everything connected with it. In its early days, after its first exploratory forays settled into a pattern, the Safari was divided into two legs, South and North. The first went to Tanganyika, as it was then called, where it made a short stop at Dar-es-Salaam, and the second to Uganda, where it stopped briefly at Kampala. Both started and finished at Nairobi, where the two legs were divided by a reasonable rest stop.

Time schedules were so tight and even often made tighter by the weather, that lateness invariably ate into that rest period, and many crews often found themselves with no more than a couple of hours respite before heading out again on the second leg. Indeed, we recall one weary, mudstained pair (one of many, as it turned out) arriving after the first leg at the Nairobi control outside the City Hall, in what was then called Sgt. Ellis Avenue, only to be told, “You’ve just got time for a beer and a pee. You’re off again in ten minutes.”

And off they went, of course. Nobody complained. It was all part of the magic of the Safari. Sleep was grabbed in short snatches, and on relatively easy sections one crewman sometimes slept, leaving both driving and navigation to the other. Maximum permitted lateness was usually generous, and was often extended if the organisers felt this was necessary. Naturally, an extension of permitted lateness was never accompanied by a corresponding extension of the rest period. All lateness was absorbed at the stopover (as it still is) and even if you were horribly late arriving, you still had to restart at your original scheduled time.

Tired as they were, if any of those late arrivals had been asked whether they wanted lateness extended so that they could stay in the event (the alternative being exclusion for exceeding it), they would unfailingly have chosen the extension so that they could go on for the satisfaction of completing a Safari Rally. Fatigue was quite unimportant when finishers’ badges were at stake.

The modern Safari has the same basic configuration as its forerunners, but its hard-boiled brutishness, from which its reputation was created, has been softened somewhat by World Championship standards formulated in Paris.

The overall distance has been reduced to some 2,600 miles, but it is still longer than other championship rallies, and its competitive proportion remains high at over 67%, much, much higher than that of events in Europe. The RAC Rally’s percentage last year, for instance, was a mere 19.5%, and other European rallies have similar proportions. This is not a criticism of the rallies we have in Europe, which are equally enjoyable and demanding in their own way. It is simply an inescapable statistic, made necessary by European road and traffic conditions.

Safari rest periods have been lengthened and made more frequent, and it is perhaps in this way that the rally has suffered its greatest dilution. Don’t get us wrong; the rally is still strikingly exacting, combining progressive ideas with a dash of the old overlander spirit. But it does now go to bed most nights during its five days, and that is something which makes stalwart Safari supporters shudder. There are other reasons why the organisers seek to avoid night running, in certain parts of the country at least, and in this respect we, and everyone else, must accept their judgement, based in this case on local situations, not the need to satisfy FISA.

Whether you favour day or night running is a matter of personal preference. Most pressmen prefer the daytime, because it allows them to take pictures by day and to sleep at night. But rallying, despite what publicists and that jealously restricted organisation called the Rally Press Association say, is not a sport intended for the exclusive benefit of the press. Like the badger, it is what it is, and everyone has to accept that. And what badger would change its nocturnal habits simply because someone wanted to photograph it in sunshine?

Spread over five days, Thursday to Monday, this year’s rally was divided into six distinct parts by five rest stops of 11, 14, 9, 8.5 and 15 hours respectively. The running periods were of 11, 6, 6, 6.5 and 4 hours, so there was far more rest scheduled than running time. The actual totals were 39h 03m on the move and 58h 02m resting.

But even this did not satisfy FISA, whose representatives made it clear at the end of the rally that they considered the rest periods insufficient, and they should be increased for next year. All we can say is that FISA is hopelessly out of touch. The people most able to judge whether they have had sufficient rest are the competitors themselves, and all they seem to complain about is that their rhythm is interrupted too much by rest periods. On the other hand, some crews, largely professionals, take the opposite view. Having been cosseted for some years by increasingly generous stops, they have become accustomed to regular, more-than-adequate rest, and would perhaps argue against the suggestion that rest periods are too long. Could this be because long rest periods mean that professionals have to work less hard for their fees?

Another consideration is one which stems from the very nature of the Safari’s timing system. In a special stage event, normal penalties are independent of the overall timing so that, no matter how many stage time penalties are amassed, the timetable of the rally remains unaffected. But, without special stages, the Safari’s penalties come from actual road lateness, and this does affect the time schedule of the event. A penalty of eight hours means that a competitor has, during the course of the event, taken that much longer than the originally scheduled time to complete the route, with a corresponding reduction in the rest time he has taken.

This is probably what was in the minds of the FISA men when they declared that this year’s rest periods were not enough, although if you take the winners’ penalty into account you will see that he will still have had 49h 26m rest and 47h 39m driving time. Not a bad proportion at all! At the other end of the scale, the last finisher (tenth overall) amassed a total lateness penalty of 30h 45m, which means that he spent 69h 48m driving and 27h 17m resting. But even that is not unreasonable for an event in which penalties are based on the overall timetable and in which everyone knows exactly what they are letting themselves in for. Incidentally, we didn’t hear Steve Anthony complaining when he drove his little Daihatsu into tenth place!

However, the organisers have already announced that next year the Safari will start on a Wednesday, not Thursday, the extra day enabling them to schedule even longer rest periods.

Another feature which sets the Safari apart from the regulated niceties and precision of Europe is just plain, old fashioned weather. When it rains, it’s like someone up there pulling out the plug. At worst, roads can become quagmires or even vanish altogether beneath suddenly formed lakes. At best, there may be no rain at all where you are actually driving, but a storm over a distant mountain will fill dry river beds and you may find your way blocked by a raging torrent which, just minutes before, did not exist at all. Nothing can be done about this. It is one of the whims of Africa and an intrinsic part of the Safari Rally which, after all, owes its origins to people who wanted to do battle against such forces of nature.

No road in Kenya can truly be called all-weather. Mother Nature is mightier than any construction equipment, and anyone who says that the organisers of the Safari should have contingency plans to avoid all possible road blockages is really expecting them to do the impossible. Of course, some roads present greater risks than others, and for these there are alternative routes which are published in advance, ready to be activated if required. Nevertheless, the organisers cannot be expected to have everything neatly sewn up according to the precise standards of Europe. The weather is unpredictable, and if anyone does get blocked by mud, by water, or even by cars which get stuck in front of them, they should remember that it’s all part of the game and an inherent feature of the event.

Naturally, one can only feel sorry for someone who gets blocked because cars ahead have got stuck, and is delayed beyond maximum permitted lateness. The organisers, if they feel it necessary, can increase this maximum (which they did this year) but the degree of extension is not limitless, and after you’ve been toiling away in a huge mud hole for some hours there comes a time when you must face the fact that, even if you succeed in getting through, you may be beyond the time limit.

Such a situation stopped a whole group of competitors in the Taita Hills section of the Safari’s first leg this year. Some managed to get by; others didn’t, and although the organisers extended maximum lateness by three hours it was not enough to keep them from being time-barred.

Much later in the rally, when the runners were down to just twelve, another blockage stopped the leaders in the region of Kakamega when a grader being used to clear a way past a big mud hole itself got stuck. Juha Kankkunen eventually got his Lancia through on the end of a long tow rope, but others, in time-honoured Safari fashion, got the maps out and went in search of a way around. They succeeded, but later the Lancia team manager protested that as Kankkunen had been the only one to have taken the correct route, all the others should be excluded.

Such a protest could only have come from someone more accustomed to the precision of Europe than to the rough and tumble of the Safari. Whether it was made as a try-on, with tongue in cheek, is still not clear, but it certainly brought grins to the faces of Safari regulars, both Kenyan and from overseas. In any event, it got as far as a meeting between Lancia’s team manager and the stewards, after which the protest was withdrawn.

Like advertising on cars and the fixing of rally numbers on their roofs, air support is something which the Safari Rally pioneered. Many years ago, farmers would take up their light aircraft to help their competing friends, whilst later the art of airborne radio relay was perfected by the directors of Peugeot importers MarshaIls Ltd., themselves regular competitors. Nowadays, a radio relay aircraft is not enough for a team. Nor, it seems, is just one helicopter. Both Toyota and Lancia had one helicopter for each of their cars, and wherever you saw one of these competitors there was always an attendant helicopter overhead. Indeed, the arrival of the leaders at any control was always heralded by the appearance of the helicopters, one after the other, often landing to refuel from drums whilst their cars were being serviced.

Subaru, on the other hand, had no helicopter even though they had six Legacies in the event. They did have a radio relay aircraft, however, and on one occasion this changed its role to collect a vital oil pipe from mechanics at Nakuru airstrip and drop it, suitably wrapped in colourful cloth, to a stricken Jim Heather-Hayes who had stopped on the descent into the Great Rift Valley from the Mau Escarpment.

The Subaru team, with 5-speed cars from Japan, not the 6-speed cars from Prodrive which have yet to make their first appearance, had a rally of mixed fortunes. Overheating and engine failures caused the retirements of Alen, Duncan and Kirkland, whilst Bourne followed suit after holing his sump. Heather-Hayes had a whole string of troubles, but managed to press on to finish an excellent sixth. Teammate Njiru got his Group N car to eighth place, and whilst this was actually the first occasion that a Group N car has finished the Safari, it should be remembered that the category is a comparatively new one, that the old Group 1 was a much more standard configuration, and the Safari was once a contest for “showroom cars only”, with classes not according to engine size but to garage selling price!

Lancia, too, suffered overheating, and although last year’s winner Biasion managed to inch his way ahead of Waldegard’s Toyota on one section, the position was shortlived because the Italian stopped when overheating resulted in engine failure. Fiorio went out for the same reason, the overheating no doubt having been caused by mud blocking the radiator.

Radiator blockage is always a danger in the Safari, in dry weather by insects and foliage and in wet weather by mud. Indeed, regular hosing by high pressure jets is essential, whilst caked mud has to be chipped from wheel arches, brakes, steering etc. just as often as ice has to be knocked off cars in Nordic winter events.

Overheating was also a big problem for Toyota, although in this case the fault lay with failure after failure of the water pumps fitted to their turbocharger intercoolers. Indeed, they got through so many of these that there was concern that their entire stock would be used up. To be sure, a phone call was made to Cologne on the Friday and the same night a man boarded a flight at Frankfurt, his hand baggage full of extra water pumps! Toyota’s resources this year were on a scale equal to Lancia’s. Both teams had their share of troubles, but Toyota managed to get all three Celicas to the finish, in first, third and fourth places. It was a splendid victory for Bjorn Waldegard and Fred Gallagher. They are both past winners of the event, but Walgegard was said to have been on his last rally for Toyota before retiring from active competition. What a swansong! And in his forty seventh year!