Rally Review, May 1969

Cynics, mainly those who have never been to Africa, tend to look upon the East African Safari Rally as a game of chance rather than one of skill; as a gigantic mud plug where everything depends on paying the most money to the groups of tribesmen who gather at every likely spot in order to trade pushing power for shillings. How I wish they could be made to eat their words.

The best way to look upon the Safari is as a road race, a kind of triple Mille Miglia over unmade roads with about 50 enforced stops. True the weather plays an important part, for Easter is just about the time when the heavy rains start, when dusty murram roads can be turned instantly into seas of mud, slippery as ice in some parts and deep enough to swallow up whole axles in others.

Completely unpredictable, these heavy rainstorms can gather in minutes, making a mockery of the predictions of even the most accurate forecaster and often rendering preparations not based on every weather possibility pretty futile. To me, this is one of the qualities which puts the Safari on a pedestal. The unknown, the unpredictable, are the very essences of true rallying and at a time when determined practicing is changing the face of the sport in Europe (but not, thankfully, in Britain) it is refreshing to go along to a rally which retains its unknown factor to the last mile, no matter how much reconnaissance the competitors have put in.

The Safari route is always announced weeks beforehand, enabling drivers to traverse it several times over if they wish. Indeed, serious contestants would be unwise not to do this for navigation in the Bush can be difficult, despite the organisers’ tulip-style road book. But that is not to say that they should prepare accurate and highly-detailed pace notes as they do on Europe’s special stages. Africa is a land of sudden topographical change, and what might be a perfectly smooth dirt road one day could well be a series of body-shaking corrugations the next, “Flat over brow” may be taken at face value in Europe, but on Safari it is as well to keep just one of those vital ten tenths in reserve now and again.

The second hand is superfluous on any clock used by a Safari marshal, or control officers as they are there called. The niceties of such accurate timing aren’t needed on an event where the calendar is jokingly given more significance than a watch. There are no special stages as such, just 50 road sections of varying lengths making up the total distance of 3,200 miles. Time allowances were such that the average speeds were higher this year than they have ever been; two sections, east of about 150 miles, were averaged at 85 m.p.h.—on open public roads, too, although there is a vast difference between East Africa’s traffic density and that of some European countries. I can almost see the brandy bubbling in the R.A.C.’s committee rooms.

Whereas the 1968 Safari was the wettest on record, the year 1969 will probably go down in the record books as the driest. The rains kept away until Easter was past and the entire route was one endless dust cloud. In an effort to make the event more attractive to Europeans, the organisers had shunned roads which were known to become virtually impassable in wet weather. More mountain and escarpment road had been used than in past years, and it was generally accepted that the chances of an overseas driver breaking the local monopoly were greater this year than they have ever been.

But, alas, it was not to be. Even the Scandinavians have failed to beat these wily East African drivers in their own country, and with local names again occupying the top places the challenge remains for an outsider to go to Nairobi and win the Safari. Some of the organisers fear that this apparent local supremacy will act as a deterrent if allowed to continue, which is one of the reasons for the choice of more European-like roads this year. But they are quite wrong. I believe that 1970 will see even more Europeans making an effort to knock the locals off their perch.

To ship a factory team from one continent to another is costly, which is probably why the Safari has never seen a straight fight between the camps of Ford, Porsche, Renault, Saab, Lancia, Volvo, Rootes, B.M.C., Citroën and the various other regulars and one-time-regulars in the European circus. Several of them have been in their time and they have always had to face stiff opposition from teams entered by local importers and dealers. Peugeot, for instance, has no competition programme nowadays, but it always supports the efforts of Marshalls Limited, the Nairobi-based Peugeot distributors; efforts which have been eminently successful in previous years. Similar tactics are often employed by Ford who, although they have been en masse to East Africa several times, were content this year to leave their fortunes in the hands of Hughes Limited, their local distributors, who were given a Boreham-prepared Cortina Lotus and two Cologne-prepared V6 20Ms to form a team.

The rally itself was hot, dry and dusty, and many drivers were complaining of the conditions which made overtaking extremely hazardous. But I suspect that they all secretly preferred the dust to the sticky, clinging mud which could so easily have covered the route. After all, nobody likes wading up to his knees in slime.

When conditions have been bad and the going difficult, Peugeots have been in their element, these sturdy, hardly-modified cars proving to have a high reliability factor. But the fierce pace of this year’s event was too much for them and faster cars were always ahead. Marshalls place great stress on reliability and even entered one of the new 504s to see how it would behave. It gave remarkably little trouble and finished the really, although it was eventually disqualified because the crew had overlooked a missing rubber stamp on their time card at one of the controls.

The strongest team in the running were the Datsuns from Japan. They had been in East Africa for some two months before the rally, watching, testing, recceing and getting generally acclimatised to a route which goes from sea level to many thousands of feet above. But something had gone wrong with their choice of drivers and they had only one in the top seeding group, Jack Simonian. When he was time-barred after being delayed through a crash their chances of an outright win frittered away, although they did prove their reliability by getting all their remaining cars to the finish and winning the coveted team prize. Edgar Herrmann, who started at number 90, was the hero the Datsun team, for he forged right through the dust of the others to finish fifth.

Lampinen’s lone fatory Saab went out of the rally even before it could get dust on its numbers. The engine seized mysteriously when its service car was nearly a hundred miles away and it was not until the rally was over that a strip-down showed that a big-end bolt had loosened. Lampinen’s preparation had been so thorough that, although it was his first Safari, the local bookmakers were showing him favourite at 7 to 1, and there was much disappointment among those who hoped that the first overseas win would bring them small fortunes.

Lancia were having a go at the Safari for the first time. They have no distributor in Nairobi so rather than use the premises of a garage which would undoubtedly be preparing other cars, the team “set up shop” under safari tents in the garden of the Drews’ residence in a Nairobi suburb. Lofty Drews was to co-drive Britain’s Tony Fall, and the facilities which he laid on would have put more permanent establishments to shame. But two factory mechanics were not enough to bring the three Fulvias up to scratch, and when the engine of Pat Carlsson’s car started to overheat without apparent cause, and a replacement was ordered from Turin, it seemed that they would never get the work done in time, particularly as the scrutineers had objected to the means of fixing the protective bars at the front of the Fulvias on the grounds that the body was a thus strengthened, and had ordered modifications.

But when the Sestrières Rally was over in Italy, Munari winning it for Lancia, the team manager and three more mechanics arrived and the work was completed in time.

Aaltonen and Liddon had a lump of rock hurled through their windscreen in Uganda and had to put up with more dust than anyone it for Lancia, the team manager and three more mechanics arrived and the pair finished the rally with string, bits of wood and a fragment of Perspex telling a tale of determination and tenacity.

Not so lucky were Pat Carlsson and Susan Seigle-Morris, who lost their screen and a lot of time into the bargain. The motored on into the second leg, but finally gave up when it started to rain and continuing would have meant keeping mechanics at their posts longer and perhaps jeopardising the chances of the other two cars through missed rendezvous.

The Ford team were jubilant at the half-way stop in Kampala. Their three cars headed the field and, more important, Söderström and Palm were in the lead. An overseas win seemed very probable, and that would really capture some good publicity. But it was not to be, for on a very fast, wide, murram road half-way through the second leg the Swedes’ Taunus hit a series of corrugations deeper than all the rest and split the rear axle casing. This put Preston’s Cortina Lotus into the lead, but that evening the Boreham car crashed into the concrete parapet of a bridge and went no further. Only one works Ford remained, the 20M of Robin Hillyar and Jock Aird, and that went on to win by some half an hour or so from that very popular local man Joginder Singh in a Volvo 142S, prepared partly in Sweden and partly in the driver’s own workshops.

When it was all over, a series of protests were lodged, entirely out of keeping with the Safari’s reputation for sportsmanship. But it was not the organisers’ doing, and the protests were turned down by the stewards. One of them, however, dragged on, and nearly caused the postponement of the prizegiving ceremony.

At final scrutineering the exhaust valve diameters on Hillyar’s 20M were found to be three millimetres oversize. Claiming that the homologation papers were incomplete, he was sportingly given 24 hours to provide firm evidence of this. An hour or so before deadline confirmation came from the F.I.A. that the large exhaust valves were homologated for the car. Seemingly, that was that, but Singh and Bhardwaj protested that the papers presented at initial scrutineering should be the only ones used for determining eligibility of parts after the finish. This, too, was turned down by the stewards, but a protracted international controversy threatened to delay everything when Bhardwaj gave notice of intended appeal to the R.A.C. There seemed to be no hope of preventing a superb rally ending inconclusively in the air, with no winner declared and no awards presented. But then, with the ceremony already delayed by an hour, the announcement came that Singh and Bhardwaj had withdrawn their appeal. No reason was given, and much praise for sportsmanship was being distributed, but I did hear whispers of a suggestion to inspect a certain Volvo a little more closely! Perhaps I should say no more.

There can be no doubt that this is the toughest of rallies. Power, strength and reliability are demanded of the cars, whilst the drivers must possess as much strategic ability as they do skill and endurance. Tactics can never really be planned in advance; the must be left until weather and road conditions are apparent. On some sections flat-out speeds are required, whereas on others eagerness must be tempered by the need to preserve the car over deep ruts and rock-strewn descents.

The great pity about the Safari is that it does tend to have political undertones. Although it has always used a route which has included all three East African countries, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, this year the Tanzanian authorities refused to allow the rally to enter their country and denied residents, citizens or foreigners, the right to take part in the rally. This was because the organisers had refused to agree to a Tanzanian demand to have the rally start at Dar es Salaam. The route in Uganda was possible only because the half-way stop was moved from Nairobi to Kampala.

Next year it is said that the rally will start and finish at Kampala, Nairobi only being used as a centre for administration and communications. This, I feel, will be a retrograde step. The rally was born in Nairobi and it should always be based in its traditional home. I am no expert on African affairs, but I know enough about the place to say with confidence that some of the vital atmosphere will be lost if the rally is not based at Nairobi. Can you imagine what they would say in Monaco if the French authorities insisted that the Monte Carlo Rally should finish in Paris?

A superb rally held in magnificent, unspoiled country, unfettered by stunting regulations and organised by a band of enthusiasts as keen and efficient as any I’ve seen anywhere. Long may it continue unchanged.—G. P.