East African Safari
Unsophisticated, crude. rugged, sweaty, even primitive; these are adjectives which, on the face of it, can hardly be considered complimentary. Yet when they are applied to the East African Safari Rally there can be no person who has ever had anything to do with that event who would deny that they are applicable in the most complimentary sense possible. Some years ago we described that event as the toughest test of a motor car ever devised by man. After watching 85 cars whittling themselves down to 18 along an impossibly fast 6,000 kilometre route through the East African bush at Easter time, we can only confirm that it has not outlived its reputation.
The Safari was started by a bunch of expatriate enthusiasts in Kenya who were seeking a means of celebrating the Coronation in 1953 in a manner which appealed to their sporting instincts. That appeal spread to rallying people in other continents and, when attempts to beat the local drivers failed year after year. it eventually became the event which the factory teams most wanted to win.
A myth was built up around this apparent supremacy of local drivers and it became popular to talk of the Safari as the one rally in which familiarity with the peculiar local conditions would always triumph over the professional abilities of experienced works teams.
Eastertime is the period when the long, dry summer gives way to the sudden, drenching rains which can turn dust bowls into vast glue pots in a matter of seconds and can so quickly send rivers cascading down their previously dry beds that bridges, and even roads themselves, can be washed away as easily as though a demolition crew had been at work. East African mud can be incredibly slippery (brown murrarn soil) or as sticky as a man-made adhesive (black cotton soil). The ability to distinguish between these properties, to drive quickly and safely on either, to read the signs which warn of sudden floods, recognise the flick of a buck’s tail as the prelude to a dash across the road, and to keep off any grass which might be hiding tyre-bursting thorn bushes is second nature to a practised bush traveller.
With these skills to add to their driving talents it was understandable that local drivers should be difficult to beat. Add to this the mystery and folklore of Africa and it’s not difficult to understand why a myth should have been built up. But it was really only a matter of time before it was knocked down again, for there is no substitute after all for the combined skills and resources of a professional rally team. A privateer, however able, would stand as much chance against the might of factory teams in the Safari as he would armed with a fly swatter against a wave of dive bombers.
This year a pair of outsiders won the rally for the first time. Hannu Mikkola, driving in his second Safari, and Gunnar Palm, in his eighth, drove their works Ford Escort RS 1800 to outright victory, backed by the powerful support of the factory. When works teams go on any rally their resources are usually the best possible, but where the Safari is concerned they have to put a veritable army into the field. More service cars, more mechanics, bigger supplies of spare parts, fuel supplies in desolate areas, using an aircraft as a mobile command post and linking the whole armada by two-way radio; these are things which have grown up around the Safari in recent years, and Ford utilised them all to good effect.
Last year, when an American tyre distributor financed several European reams in order to provide material for an advertising campaign in the Americas, there were more works teams than the Safari has ever seen. This year there were much fewer, so it is perhaps a little easier to talk about their respective fortunes.
Five works cars prepared at Boreham were entered in the Safari, two driven by local crews, two by Finnish/Swedish/English combinations and one by a former Kenya resident now settled in England. So it can be seen that even Ford was not really convinced that rally-hardened professionals could beat the wily local drivers. They wanted the extra publicity which an overseas win would provide, but they insured against the chances of this not being possible by hiring some of Kenya’s top rally people.
The cars were 210 b.h.p. versions Of the Escort RS1600, with 1,798 c.c. engines. They were of all-steel construction, for lightness has to be sacrificed for strength in this particular event, and weighed almost a ton. They used ZF gearboxes, with first, second and third close together for maximum effectiveness on twisty, hilly roads, and a fairly large gap between those and the top two ratios so that there would be no undue straits on the engine on the many long, fast straights.
A car which could be driven at violently jarring speeds across 6,000 kilometres of African bush in the space of a long weekend without developing any faults would be a rarity indeed, so it is no real discredit to Ford’s success that the Escorts needed attention quite frequently (though not as frequently as most others) during the trip. Makinen’s car lost a rear wheel after its crew was obliged to tighten the nuts with a spanner after a puncture—there was no wheelbrace in the car—and recurring trouble took place after the damage which was caused when the studs sheared due to constant wear. The lock nuts on top of the front suspension struts began loosening on all the cars, perhaps because the spring rates were softer than normal to absorb the violent impacts or perhaps because the humping was setting up a twisting action within the springs, causing the nuts to unscrew. This caused the retirement of Ford’s Sikh crew, Joginder Singh and Harbhijan Sembi, when the peculiar handling sent the car off the road, bending the rear axle and breaking a driveshaft, but the mechanics were able to warn the other drivers by radio of the loosening nuts and both competitors and mechanics were able to tighten them regularly.
Fan belts, too, presented a problem for they were being shed quite frequently. Escort alternators are bush-mounted, and any degree of overtightening the belts tends to draw the pulleys out of line. in this respect we had the age-old cross-talk of mechanics blaming drivers and drivers blaming mechanics, but we will not take sides on that score.
Struts and fan belts were Ford’s main attention centres, and additional supplies of these parts had to be brought out to Nairobi by a mechanic halfway through the rally after an SOS telephone call to Boreham.
The Japanese team, with two outright victories immediately behind them, entered three of their powerful 240Z sports cars and one of their new 1800 SSS saloons. The latter car, which had to have its electronic fuel injection system replaced by carburetters after it had proved completely unreliable in the changing altitudes during practice, showed itself to be unready for such events and it gave constant trouble, breaking suspensions, catching fire twice and even cracking its rear cross-member.
The 240Zs ran into trouble in the very first competitive section of the rally, the only one, as it happened, which was wet. Water entered the clutch housings and from then on drivers had to put up with long periods with clutches which would not disengage. Furthermore, the engines appeared to consume petrol at a greater rate than the unusual feed system could supply it, and crews were obliged to rig up their own pipework contraptions to get the vital fluid through faster.
This French make is extremely popular in Africa and it has a reputation for being able to withstand considerable pounding even in standard form. MarshaIls, the E.A. Peugeot distributors, set great store by Safari results as a sales aid (and rightly so) and they always put a strong team of experienced local crews into the event. They are not works cars by any means, for they are prepared in Africa, but the factory has been providing some degree of help in recent years.
Hopelessly under-powered compared with the Escorts and the Datsuns (110 b.h.p. matched against 210) the Peugeots cannot be considered ideal Safari cars in hard, dry conditions. Had it rained this year people like Shankland, Nowicki (both past winners), Lionnet and Harris would have stood a healthy chance of being among the winners, but the continuous high speed on dry, dusty roads was hardly what was needed for Peugeot success. Nevertheless, Harris managed to finish seventh and Shankland ninth, the former with suspension tied up with winches and rope after a violent encounter with a deep ditch and the latter after a variety of transmission troubles. Nowicki, a wily Polish expatriate who loves having plenty of mud to tackle, suffered gasket failure after a hard bang put the fan through the radiator.
Huschke von Hanstein used to excuse his company’s non-participation in the Safari by “The Porsche is a sportwagen, not a Jeep”. But that never stopped Sobieslaw Zasada persuading Stuttgart to lend him a car for the event; nor did it stop the entire works team taking part last year, financed by dollars from Sears Roebuck.
This year Zasada was a complete loner, with one of last year’s team cars borrowed from the factory along with one mechanic. Helped by an assortment of amateurs, many of whom were fellow countrymen on holiday from Poland, Zasada drove magnificently, nursing his car on the rougher sections and using its power to the full on the smoother parts. The result was a virtually trouble-free run and a thoroughly deserved second place.
Apart from anything else, Zasada had to contend with team tactics from his opponents who were anxious not to allow his solitary Porsche to interfere with their chances of success. Zasada isn’t the most popular of competitors for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is the conflict between himself and Waldegard last year which put the Swedish driver out of the rally when he was in the lead—but his ability on long events demanding stamina and tactics rather than sheer speed is of a high order.
Although British Leyland were not participating as a team, they did send one Abingdon-prepared Triumph 2.5PI to Africa to be driven by their semi-retained driver Brian Cultcheth, co-driven by Nairobi man Lofty Drews. Regrettably the car did not arrive until a few days before the start, giving the local distributors (who were to service the car during the event) no opportunity to carry out the additional items of preparation which were necessary. Furthermore, the sea air had taken its toll during the voyage and when the car came off the boat its clutch was rusted.
During the rally the car gave all manner of troubles too numerous to list, including a fuel injection fault and even body cracking. However, its crew struggled bravely to the finish and managed to get the car into thirteenth place, no mean achievement under the circumstances.
Fiat Competitions Manager Maruffi has had his eye on the Safari for some time and this year he decided to send two 125S saloons to the event, not with any illusions about winning but with the idea of using it as a development exercise in preparation for a more comprehensive entry in the future. He sent Pinto and Biondi from Italy to drive one car and engaged two local men, Robin Ulyate and Ivan Smith for the other. Alas, both cars retired in the early stages of the event after damage caused in one case by hitting a ditch too hard and in the other by wrecking the steering against a rock, So the testing was not nearly as thorough as Fiat would have liked, but when we left East Africa the question of leaving the cars in Nairobi for further testing in rallies throughout the year was being considered.
Two 3-litre Holden Toranas were shipped from Australia, but these were completely private and it so happened that they lacked that extra preparation so necessary for the Safari.
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So much for the more prominent entries. There were several first class local crews of course, many of whom made up in tenacity and general bushmanship what they lacked in their motor cars. To watch the progress of some East Africans, repairing and fettling their way through the Safari without any professional mechanics to look after them is an inspiring experience. One such crew, Pat Neylan and Simon Reynolds who are up-country farmers in Kenya, used a home-built Datsun 1600 nearly five years old and finished the rally, an achievement that most professional rally drivers would be hard-pressed to equal, let alone beat.
Dust was a major problem this year, as it is whenever the weather is dry, but even more significant was the conflict of conditions when it came to choosing tyres. For the rough going chunky treads are necessary, but for the long straights they are quite unsuitable for the sustained high speeds which are necessary to stay within the tight schedules. Dunlop provided the best tread/compound combination they could muster for the works Fords, but even so there was the occasional blow out as a tread “chunked”. Other mud-grip tyres were blowing out far more often, particularly the Japanese Dunlops used by the Datsuns and the standard Dunlops used by Zasada. One should realise, of course, that chunky-tread tyres are not intended for speeds well in excess of 100 m.p.h.
Finally a word about the organisation. This year the rally started and finished at Dar-es-Salaam, to comply with an agreement reached two years ago that it should be shared between the three East African capitals. Throughout the year the Safari headquarters are at Nairobi, and since overseas visitors always use the Kenya capital as a base this moving from place to place year by year stretched the organisation to the limit. Furthermore, there are political differences between the three countries which present difficulties, sometimes costly ones, to visiting crews. If only these could be ironed out the mechanics of taking part in the event would be rendered much smoother and it would become more attractive to overseas crews. Another point which the organisers ought to consider most carefully is the choosing of more realistic time schedules. Every year they allow themselves the privilege of increasing maximum permitted lateness should they consider it necessary. This is necessary because sudden rain can hold up competitors for hours. But in the ideal conditions which were experienced this year an increase should not have been necessary at all. The winners’ penalty amounts to nearly ten hours, and yet it was necessary to increase the lateness maximum.
Setting lower averages is not going to slow competitors down, provided they aren’t lowered too much, but it would result in a smoother timetable for the event, and in days of increasing traffic even in Africa that would not be a bad thing. — G. P.