Since its beginning in 1953, when expatriate enthusiasts in East Africa organised a 2,000-mile rally to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II, the East African Safari has steadily developed from an unsophisticated battle against the elements to a world-class motor rally which tests car and crew to the full. It has long ceased to be an expedition, and what was once a series of push, pull, dig and heave tactics, has given way to a very high-speed sprint across the bush.
World-wide recognition soon came, and although some people may not have heard about the Acropolis or the Thousand Lakes, it’s a pretty safe bet that they would know of the East African Safari. First came inclusion in the RAC World Rally Championship, and then in the International Championship for Constructors. Furthermore, the fact that the prize for the first overseas driver to win had never been awarded gave the event a special significance. It has long been accepted that a good professional crew, with factory backing, could go rallying anywhere in the world and, with a thorough recce behind them, could match any local opposition. As far as the Safari was concerned, this was in doubt, and it suddenly became important for a manufacturer not only to win, but to win with a crew from outside Africa.
No company made this more obvious than Ford. Without any round-the-world events to take their attentions in 1971, the Boreham people put all their efforts into the Safari. They entered three Escort TCs for their first-string team, Clark/Staepelaere, Mikkola/Palm and Makinen/Liddon. But as insurance, they also prepared three other cars for crews with native local knowledge. Two were driven by Joginder/Jaswant Singh and Preston Jnr./Smith, and the third by Hillyar/Aird. This was financed by Sears Roebuck Tyres of America, that company being particularly involved in the Safari in preparation for an advertising campaign to appeal to the young driver.
For many years, Porsche’s answer to the question “Why don’t you enter the Safari?” was “The Porsche is a sportwagen, not a Jeep”. This year they backed down from that policy when Sears Roebuck came along with an attractive financial offer to sponsor the entire team effort. Three cars were made ready, each with the new 2.4-litre engine, crews being Waldegård/Helmér, Andersson/Thorszelius and Zasada/Bien.
Saab, too, ran on dollars not crowns, their two cars to be driven by Blomqvist/Hertz and Trana/Andreasson. However, Trana was taken ill a few days before the start and was replaced by the team’s top mechanic, Bernt Malin.
Lancia considered the event important enough to send three works cars for Munari/Drews, Källström/Häggbom and Lampinen/Davenport. A fourth car was also prepared for Fall/Wood, but this was privately sponsored. The Daf team sent four cars, one of which was driven by local men Tejpar/Vadgama. The other three were crewed by Haxhe/Delferrier, Laurent/Marche and the Liujbregts brothers.
Datsun again put a massive effort into the event, entering three 240Z group four cars for Aaltonen/Easter, Mehta/Doughty and Hermann/Schuller. A third car was also supplied to Sears Roebuck, to be driven by Gerrish and Simonian.
In the line-up of works entries, one must not omit the Peugeot 504s, even though they were entered by the local distributors. They are strong, reliable cars and with such people as Shankland, Huth, Lionnet, Mandeville and Harris at their wheels, they were a force to be reckoned with.
Opposition from overseas was nevertheless so formidable that the first victory by a non-resident seemed certain. But the weather plays an important part in the Safari; in dry weather the roads are hard, bumpy and incredibly dusty; after a short, heavy shower they become hard and slippery, akin to icy tarmac; and after continuous rain they degenerate into ribbons of sticky, glutinous mud. If it would be dry, an overseas win would be the most likely; if it would be wet, then it would be anyone’s guess, for the local drivers are past masters at driving in deep mud.
As it happened, the rains came a week or so before the rally, but not sufficiently heavy to make much of an impression on the route. Consequently, the early stages of the rally were completely dominated by the works drivers from overseas. After years of hard, furious, special stage rallying, with mechanics ready to fettle at regular intervals, a European professional must find it contrary to all his instincts to keep something in reserve. Service points are widely spread on the Safari, and it must be difficult to stick to the principle of “softly, softly, catchee monkey” as the locals do.
First man to take the lead was Aaltonen, and he kept his Datsun at the head until half-way through the Southern Leg when Mikkola moved up briefly. Waldegård then took over, and kept the lead until the half-way stop back in Nairobi, and beyond to the middle of the Northern Leg. Then, after being held back on a narrow road by his team-mate Zasada, he became fed-up with the baulking and took a chance on overtaking in the dust. Alas there was a bend, and the Porsche went off the road, sustaining damage which prevented it continuing.
The works Fords had a variety of problems, including failure of gear selector mechanism due to the melting of a nylon block (something which also stopped three of the works Dafs, all of whose Variomatic transmissions have nylon blocks in their pulley slide systems), split radiator, cylinder-head gasket failure (which put Mikkola out of the rally), clutch thrust failure, and shattering of a propeller-shaft bearing.
Of the four Lancias, three went out with broken drive-shafts (none was carrying a spare unit), and the fourth driven by Källström got to the finish in a completely worn-out condition, having been held together by rope for a considerable time. Aaltonen’s Datsun also gave trouble, and at one stage he arrived at a service point with the whole of the rear axle held in position by three portable winches strapping the unit in place.
It was obvious that the overseas drivers were superior to the locals, but their hard tactics were having devastating effects on their cars, and they eventually lost so much time that local men moved ahead. In no rally in the world is meticulous car preparation as vital as it is in the Safari. The constant pounding is so great that any nut and bolt not properly locked is almost certain to loosen. Indeed, car preparation is far more important than a thorough reconnaissance of the route, which renders the rally an excellent choice for the Constructors’ Championship.
There are features of the rally which are unlike the others in the Championship; for instance, there are no special stages. The whole of the route is on open public roads, and timing throughout is to the nearest minute. Furthermore, whilst most rallies allow a maximum permitted lateness of half-an-hour, or one hour at the most, the Safari permits anything up to 12 hours in each of the two legs.
Some of the visiting Europeans were complaining that the event did not conform to the pattern of the Championship, and the various team managers formed a deputation to the organisers to thrash out various differences of opinion, and as a result of this some changes were made. Certainly there are things which could still be done to improve the rally, but it should be remembered that it runs through difficult country, and the organisers are faced with problems which do not exist elsewhere. Furthermore, it is still possible to run a fast road rally in Africa, and whilst this situation remains the event should not be over-Europeanised.
Finally, mention must be made of an incident which makes it obvious that, notwithstanding all the skills necessary, luck plays a part to some extent. The last really competitive section of the rally was around the back of Mount Kenya, between the small townships of Meru and Embu. Parts of this were very muddy, and the leading car, both on the road and on points, became stuck. This was the Datsun 240Z of Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty. They spent 20 minutes pushing, and they had just got their heavy car clear of the mud when along came a Police Landrover. As they drove off, the other 240Z of Herrmann and Schuller came into view, and that too got stuck in the mud. But whilst Mehta spent 20 minutes pushing, his team-mates were pulled out in two minutes, and they eventually won by the narrow margin of three minutes.—G. P.