The last true rally?



During April and May, two World Championship qualifiers took place in fairly close succession. The Safari and the Tour of Corsica were as similar as chalk and cheese; the latter conformed to all FISA’s requirements and was run so that team preparations and driver requirements were as precise as those for a Grand Prix, whilst the former retained much of the old style of rallying, was as unpredictable as ever and demanded a degree of car reliability which is sadly no longer necessary elsewhere. FISA’s constant emphasis of its rules and its incessant introduction of new ones which each qualifying event must follow has resulted in individual events almost losing their identities. To the people of Place de la Concorde, the only thing that matters is the forest; the trees themselves are insignificant, just matchwood to be whittled down whenever the knife-wielders feel the need to exert authority.

FISA has become more than just an administrative controlling body. It is a self-structured, autocratic dictatorship which sees each qualifying round of the World Championship as its own personal and compliant property, to be manipulated at will whenever the need for a show of face arises.

When Motoring News inaugurated its own rally championship some 30 years ago, it made a list of the best of British road rallies and drew up a points allocation system.

That was as far as it went. The system worked marvellously and the series was a huge success.

The World Championship would benefit enormously from the same approach. There can be nothing wrong with giving the organisers of WRC qualifiers the same freedom, letting them produce whatever style of rally they wish. In that way, the events themselves would regain the stature which RSA seems bent on stifling. After all, it is the series which depends on its qualifying events, not vice versa, a reality which FISA seems conveniently to overlook. Treat the bricks badly, and the house may fall down.

Furthermore, what is the sense in having participation minima for drivers and manufacturers, and to insist that manufacturers’ points be awarded only to cars driven by crews nominated in advance? Why not make the whole thing free, so that anyone can tackle anything, without a minimum or a maximum, and with all points scored to be taken into account at the end of the year? It would be simpler to administrate, fair to all and would put the emphasis back on individual events, where it belongs.

Geographical differences are all that distinguish between WRC events nowadays, and the Safari is unique in that its own Kenyan environment renders it rather less vulnerable to FISA interference than other events in the series. It is not immune, of course, and in the past decade it has become considerably diluted by the need to follow rules concerning distance, rest stops, night running etc, all of which seem, more than anything else, directed towards making the sport more attractive to film companies from whom huge and questionably legal sums are demanded for shooting rights.

In Kenya this year, there was a confrontation before the rally when a respected local cameraman was told that he would have to pay a four-figure sum in order to get a filming pass. Quite rightly, he objected and asked, “Why should I pay a foreign organisation in order that I may film my own country’s premier sporting event?” FISA’s press officer, who was present at the time, was distinctly embarrassed.

The time of day-and-night battles against the bush is long gone. By special dispensation, the Safari still spans five days, but it now runs only in the daytime and goes to bed every night, a far cry from the event’s original concept when it was a straightforward, honest-to-goodness, challenging slog demanding tenacity, stamina and reliability. It was devised by local people who knew and understood local conditions and needs. The present organisers know those conditions just as well as their forerunners, but they are hogtied by demands from Paris to follow rules or face eviction from the World Championship.

Perhaps its time that the Safari ignored that threat and returned to its former style, at the same time convincing organisers of other events of repute to do likewise. Stereotypes are for cretins, not for people who appreciate quality. Let’s face it; the Safari still stands apart from all others, despite its dilution, but if it bows beneath any more external demands it could be reduced to no more than a tropical copy of a standard pattern.

This year’s Safari suffered greatly from lack of funding. Escalating costs affect everyone, organisers, professional teams, privateers and even sponsors but, with such a marketable commodity, the organisers displayed a certain lack of initiative and opportunism when they failed to attract a major international backer. They did get some local support, but this was on a small scale. The result was an event which was run on something bordering a shoestring, a very sad situation indeed for what is claimed, rightly, to be ‘The Greatest Rally in the World’.

This year’s Safari was just about the least patronised that we can recall. In fact, only one regular world team was present, and it says much for Ove Andersson’s appreciation of the Safari’s publicity potential for car makers that the Cologne-based Toyota team sent no less than four Celicas.

The result was a foregone conclusion, at least as far as the make of car was concerned. The only thing in question was which of the Toyota drivers would win. The two regular team crews were Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and Markku Alén/Ilkka Kavimaki. A third car was in the hands of local pair Ian Duncan/Ian Munro, a fine partnership which, given the chance, should do well in Europe, and the fourth, a refettled recce car was driven by Yasuhiro Iwase from Japan, partnered by Kenyan Sudhir Vinayak.

The opposition was slight, to say the least, and there was no other outfit whose guns could match the firing power of Toyota. There was a single Mitsubishi Lancer, entered from Japan rather than from the British base of Ralliart, for Kenjiro Shinozuka, and he was partnered on this occasion by Pentti Kuukkala. Not surprisngly, they lacked Toyota’s level of aerial support.

There were no Legacys from Prodrive, but there was certainly a strong Subaru presence in the form of three diminutive Vivios, compact 660 cc cars which were designed originally for the Japanese market in which size and engine capacity affect both tax and parking spaces.

One of the Vivios was driven by Prodrive regulars Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, feeling unusually cramped, the others by Patrick Njiru/Rick Matthews and Masahi Ishida/Mohammed Verjee. The Subaru mechanics were not regular rally staff but mechanics from various garages in Japan who had won the Safari trip as an award for efficiency. Entered privately were two other Vivios, and a Legacy driven by Azar Anwar and Shailen Shah.

Another team of small cars, though not quite as small as the Vivios, was that of three Daihatsu Charades entered by the local importers, Royce Motors. These were driven by Guy Jack/Des Page-Morris, Ashok Pattni/Zahid Mogul and Marco Brighetti/Abdul Sidi. No WRC team was nominated by Daihatsu. First, it was not interested in championship points and, second, it wanted the freedom to change transmission parts wherever it wished.

From Austria came the irrepressible Rudi Stohl and his small entourage, with an Audi S2 for himself and Peter Diekmann, an Audi 90 for son Manfred and Kay Gerlach and three service vans. In all, 44 cars were listed.

The Safari ran in five legs, each occupying a different day and each separated by a generous night stop.

On his home ground, Ian Duncan was as much a potential winner as his visiting professional team-mates, but his chances were diminished on the very first competitive section when he hit a buck, damaged the front left bodywork and needed a replacement intercooler. Team-mate Iwase collected the first of a whole series of punctures, whilst Shinozuka was supplied with hydraulic fluid after his power steering failed.

Meanwhile, McRae was having difficulty adapting to the size and frailty of his little Vivio, especially after the more expansive and rugged Legacy. His suspension collapsed more than once, and even on the first morning he arrived at one service point on just three wheels.

After a dry start, storm clouds gathered over the Taita Hills, and the tortuous roads up and down became very slippery indeed. Alén experienced a slow puncture, whilst Duncan’s windscreen wipers worked only when they wanted to. When he hit a bump, they stopped; when he hit another, they started again, and so on. Anwar lost his fan belt and Brighetti needed a new exhaust pipe after the original was flattened by a rock.

lwase lost some minutes when he hit rocks, burst a tyre and bent a rim, Stohl needed a new alternator and Shinozuka lost some 20 minutes having a new gearbox fitted after selection had been troublesome all day.

At Mombasa, where the four Toyotas (Kankkunen, Alén, Duncan and lwase) were followed by Shinozuka, McRae’s first crack at the Safari came to an end after breakages became too frequent and penalties began to mount. The car simply didn’t stand up to the pounding whereas the others, driven with far less aplomb, kept going, albeit slowly.

On the return trip to Nairobi lwase collected more punctures, whilst a vibration in Alén’s car was traced to a bent rim. Anwar rolled his Legacy and later had his gearbox jam. He later borrowed another from a friend and spent the whole of the Friday night stop repairing his own.

This time it was Manfred Stohl who had alternator failure, whilst father Rudi drove some 150 miles without a clutch.

At Nairobi, Kankkunen led by 11 minutes from Alén. Duncan was another 13 minutes back and Shinozuka another 38. lwase was fifth, followed by Jonathan Toroitich, the president’s son, in a Toyota Celica GT4. The latter was driving well but, alas, he rolled on the third day.

There was a small hitch when cars were about to leave on the third day; someone had forgotten to unlock the gates through which cars had to leave the grounds of the Kenyatta Conference Centre. A few minutes and a crowbar did the trick!

The replacement of a half-shaft took longer than expected on Kankkunen’s car and he lost a minute in the easy tarmac section to Kajiado. During the morning, lwase collected his sixth puncture of the rally, whilst Pattni’s rear door catch broke and string wasn’t quite good enough to keep dust out of the car. Njiru broke a strut and spent an hour driving on just three wheels.

Duncan had a heart-stopping moment when a water hose split and the engine temperature rose so much that he didn’t think he would make it. He did get going and, topping up regularly, he made it to Toyota’s main service point just before Nairobi where his cylinder head gasket was promptly changed.

After leaving Nairobi and heading out into the Kedong Valley towards Narok, Duncan collected a puncture, stopped to replace the wheel and later stopped at an emergency service point to pick up a new spare. But this wasn’t his only problem. The engine was still overheating due to failure of the new gasket and the radiator had to be topped up regularly. When the gasket was changed earlier, the head itself was not changed and this had obviously warped.

The question was, would it last throughout the day until they got to Eldoret? There was no opportunity for the gasket and head to be changed before then.

lwase got ahead of Duncan when the latter was dealing with his puncture, but on the next section the Japanese driver sportingly agreed to allow Duncan to go ahead.

Another Vivio stopped soon afterwards when Ishida’s car blew its head gasket, whilst Pattni’s car had fuel pump failure for the third time, each time due to a disconnected electrical lead. Manfred Stohl damaged the rear suspension of his car, formerly his father’s, whilst Rudi stopped an oil leak by the time-honoured fashion of using rapid action Araldite.

At Eldoret, Kankkunen and Alén were given new gearboxes, whilst Duncan’s priority was to have his cylinder head replaced. This was done and there was no problem thereafter. He also had a new windscreen. He still held third place, but the gap had increased considerably and he was then 76 minutes behind team-mate Alén.

Early in the fourth leg, having rolled in the third, Toroitich was delayed so much by a broken half-shaft that he was beyond maximum lateness at the Baringo mid-day stop. With Toyotas in the first four places, team boss Ove Andersson was asked if he had issued any team orders. The reply was quick and to the point: they could do what they liked. . . as long as they didn’t fight each other.

lust before Baringo, a loop northwards from Chebloch Bridge, the wooden structure across the deep gorge now replaced by a more substantial affair, was cancelled on the grounds that it had become too dangerous due to washaways. Some were pleased by this; others were not. After this, Stohl spent most of the remainder of the day without a clutch, whilst Kankkunen did not even have to replace his wheel after a puncture; Toyota’s aerial crew did the job for him.

That evening, in addition to the usual routine and preventive replacements, the Toyotas had their engine oil replaced. lwase had a tale to tell of being baulked by an ostrich which kept running ahead of him at something like 30 mph. Njiru collected a puncture and broke a steering box bracket, whilst Manfred Stohl said that when he stopped because there was a rock in the road, a man brandishing a spear appeared. He wasted no time finding a way around the obstacle!

The final day was merely academic. The four Toyotas were being driven at far less than their customary speeds, as they had been during most of the third and fourth legs. Their advantage was such that they had absolutely nothing to gain and they merely cruised through in order to keep their positions. A Toyota win had been inevitable from the start. A 1-2-3-4 result was a bonus.

It had been a costly exercise, but Andersson nevertheless considered it justifiable and said that, throughout the world, especially in Japan, the Monte and the Safari were the two best known rallies and winning either of them was well worth the effort.

Let’s hope that, by the time next Easter comes around, the organisers will have convinced a major sponsor that substantial investment is equally worthwhile.