John Davenport pays tribute to an East African hero who was first a Safari-winning legend, then a consummate politician
The king of the Safari Rally died in a London hospital in mid-April. Five times winner of that event, his active career came to a halt with a major accident on the Pharaohs Rally in October 1987 while leading in a Peugeot 205 T16 Grand Raid. The injuries caused and an associated infection were instrumental in his death so many years later.
Born in Uganda, it was there in 1966 that he had his first motorsport experiences with a BMW 2000. He got his first factory drive, with Datsun, for 1971 and won the Safari for the first time two years later.
After a spell with Lancia, he returned to Datsun and, after three successive retirements on the Safari, won the event four times on the trot (1979-82).
He did the Acropolis Rally a total of eight times, each time finishing in the top 10. He was second for Datsun in Argentina in 1981 and, in a one-off Audi drive, came fourth there in ’83.
For 1986, Jean Todt recruited Mehta to head up Peugeot’s Safari testing and on the event he finished eighth in a 205 T16. With Group B effectively dead for ’87, he did a string of WRC events for Nissan in a 200SX, taking a best result of second on the Ivory Coast Rally. At the same time he had a rally-raids arrangement with Peugeot and the Pharaohs was one of those.
Once Mehta was back in circulation, FIA president Max Mosley lost no time in getting him onto the Cross-Country Commission. He became president of the Rallies Commission in 1997 at a difficult time for the WRC, but Mehta was adept at guiding matters in his gentle, humorous way. In 2000 he became president of the new WRC Commission and held that post until the beginning of last year, when Jacques Regis took over. With Regis’s retirement at the beginning of this year, Mehta was called up to take the post again. He had held it for a matter of weeks before the effects of the 1987 accident finally caught up with him.
He is survived by his wife, Yvonne, so often his co-driver, and his son Vijay.