The Safari Rally

Rain, mud, torrent and flood

Just as a delicious meal serves no purpose whatsoever if laid before empty chairs, so the best rally in the world can be quite insignificant without competitors of sufficient talent to appreciate it. Towards the end of 1977 there was much speculation concerning the entry which the 1978 Safari Rally was likely to attract, particularly as both Ford and the Fiat/Lancia combine had declared that they would not be going to Kenya. Furthermore, Mitsubishi had virtually stepped out of the sport for 1978 until an up-to-date competitive car could be homologated. What, then, was left? Would the professional participation consist merely of a duel between Safari regulars Peugeot and Datsun?

But, quite independently of each other, two big German manufacturers were quietly making plans to send cars to the Safari: Porsche, when two of the company’s executives who are extremely enthusiastic about rallying found themselves with a budget supplied by Martini, and Mercedes-Benz, when the British importers convinced Stuttgart that the success of the 280E on the London-Sydney Rally was no flash-in-the-pan, and that the cars would have a very good chance of winning such an event as the Safari, in which power and agility were not all that mattered.

Porsche has been backed in racing for some time by Martini, and it didn’t take much for that company to realise that the Safari could provide exotic advertising material in keeping with the image it has created over the past several years. For Herren Barth and Jantke it was just what they had been fervently hoping for—the opportunity to tackle the Safari again with a winning chance and a real possibility of providing Martini with a substantial return for its investment. To drive the cars they enlisted Vic Preston Jnr. from Nairobi and Bjorn Waldegard. The Swede is contracted to Ford, but the British team didn’t require his services over Easter and sportingly agreed to his driving a Porsche.

Mercedes’ only recent experience of rallying was on the London-Sydney Rally for which homologation requirements did not apply at all. For the Safari, they were faced with making sure that the cars were strong enough to take the pounding without overstepping the mark of the regulations, and this was not at all easy, particularly as the rear suspensions of the 280E gave much trouble during the pre-rally testing period.

Andrew Cowan and Tony Fowkes, first and second respectively on the London-Sydney Rally, drove two of the Mercedes, and the other two were entrusted to local man Joginder Singh and Polish driver Sobieslaw Zasada.

Peugeot sent factory cars as usual, but was quite happy to leave the organisation and planning to the importers, Marshalls of East Africa, who have an immense amount of Safari experience. Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Timo Makinen and Simo Lampinen drove the three 504 V6 coupes whilst the single 504 saloon was driven by Tanzanian Scot Bert Shankland. Datsun sent four 160J saloons for Harry Kallstrem, Rauno Aaltonen, Sheldiar Mehta and Zully Rhemtulla.

Between these four teams the rivalry was intense, although before the Rally, Mercedes’ chances were not rated as high as the other three. As it happened the rating was not far wrong, for the big cars proved to be far less competitive than the others, and three of them retired well before half distance.

The weather invariably plays a considerable part in all rallying, for by its very nature the sport is as much a contest against the elements as against rival competitors. Where would Scandinavian winter rallies be, for instance without their ice and snow, or the Acropolis without its heat and its dust ? But the Safari has no one climatic characteristic, unless one considers unpredictability as one of its regular features. African weather does have a theoretical pattern, but of late the most common word in the vocabulary of Nairobi weather men has become “unseasonal” and the pattern seems to have gone by the board. Sometimes one of the two rain seasons of the year fails altogether and sometimes one of them doesn’t realise when it’s time to stop and continues to merge with the next.

That is exactly how it was with the 1978 Safari. Early predictions were that the March Easter would provide dry weather, but last October’s short rains just went on and on into the new year and were still going on at Eastertime, no doubt to merge with the long rains when they came in April.

Had the rain stopped just before the Rally, the sun would have baked what was left of the roads into the roughest route the event has known, for the absence of a proper dry period meant that no repair work could be carried out on the devastated bush tracks. But the rain didn’t stop, and what emerged was an endless battle with torrential rain, deep clinging mud, landslides, potholes, washaways, flash floods and instant rivers so deep and fast-flowing that crossing one of them was a feat of bravery and ingenuity in itself.

There are those who say that conditions such as these turn the Safari from a test of skill into a game of chance, but they are common features of African rallying and are as much a part of the Safari as Alpine ice is a part of the Monte. Skill and performance do count, of course, but endurance, stamina, tenacity and reliability are every bit as, if not more, essential for success.

In the initial stages, the two Porsches moved ahead, and Waldegard led after the first of three legs. But he was delayed by suspension failures in the second leg and the lead was taken over by Aaltonen’s Datsuri. As all this was happening, both competitors and organisers were tackling all manner of difficulties, the former to get through the mud and water and the latter to decide which roads were completely impassable and to what degree they should increase maximum permitted lateness to cover the inevitable delays. From every competitor came tales of encounters with near-impassable roads, deviations across the bush to avoid deep mud, and heart-stopping moments as cars were hauled across raging torrents on the ends of stout ropes.

In conditions such as these competition is rarely close, for cars tend to become widely spaced and penalty differences are on the high side. But this wasn’t the case at all. In the third leg there was a dramatic struggle for the lead and even in the last few kilometres of the rally no certain winner was apparent.

Firstly, Aaltonen lost the lead to Kallstrom when he got stuck in a ditch, then Kallstrom stopped permanently when his entire rear axle all but fell off after the main cross member cracked in two. Nicolas then took over the lead in his Peugeot coupe, but had to work really hard to stay ahead of Aaltonen who was pulling out all the stops to recover his time loss and get ahead again. But the Finn didn’t make it„ for on the last competitive section he both rolled and broke his steering, although it says much for his tenacity that he and his local co-driver Lofty Drews were able to finish third.

The drama was not over for Nicolas, for on the final run along the tarmac road into Nairobi he collided with a spectator’s car which was stupidly U-turned in front of him, and it was only with the help of a following service crew that he was able to make the finish with a radiator leak.

Not that World Championship positions are all that significant at this stage of the series. With only three of the eleven events gone, Porsche has now moved into the lead with the Monte win and a Safari second place totalling 34 points. More pertinent is Fiat’s second place with 28 and Ford’s third with 25, for if there is to be any battle at all later in the year it will be between these two makes.

Rallying owes its origin to enthusiasts who wanted more from their sport than racing could provide, something which also appealed to their sense of fun and adventure. Sadly, the adventure has long been regulated out of many of the world’s rallies, but in some it remains, and in no event is it more evident than in the Safari. Attempts have been made to bring about conformity with events in Europe, but happily they have failed, and we trust that by its very unpredictability and the violently changing terrain through which it passes, it will remain unique as the greatest adventure rally of the world.—G.P.