The Safari Rally

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RALLIES are either won or lost; they can never be bought. No matter how massive an operation is mounted to back up a team of cars, competing skill and organisational efficiency are essential ingredients which are totally unrelated to the size of a service fleet and the depth of a paying pocket.

Were this not so, Mercedes-Benz would certainly have walked away with victory in the Safari Rally over the Easter weekend, for they mounted a massive service operation of proportions which amazed everyone, even the team’s own drivers. Whereas most rally teams try to base themselves at a garage or some other workshop-type premises, the Mercedes team rented an aircraft hangar at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and filled it with crates, spares, tyres and various other equipment. There was just enough space left for mechanics to work on the cars, but the fleet of over fifty support vehicles of one kind or another had to be lined up outside.

With six competing cars, service vans, 4-w-d vehicles for assistance in muddy sections, fast emergency service cars, aircraft, a helicopter and a whole army of locally hired staff to supplement the German mechanics, the entire operation was enormous and certainly far costlier than any factory entry in any World Championship rally that we have seen.

But despite the vast resources at their disposal, mistakes were made by the Mercedes people, and the disappointment they felt when they lost the lead, and victory, on the final night bordered on total despair. Last year they had returned to competition with the Safari Rally but managed only one finisher, in sixth place. The mistakes of 1978 were put right for 1979 but others took their place and the operation was not as efficiently run as it might have been.

The first mistake of the Mercedes team was to enter two types of car, three 450SLCs and three 280Es. This meant that the spare parts load was doubled, and it led to such time-consuming incidents as taking a 280E rear axle into a section to rescue Bjorn Waldegard who had broken the differential of his 450SLC. That error was put right by removing the rear axle from a 450SLC practice car which was being used for fast emergency service. Another was an apparent reluctance on the part of German mechanics to do anything unless it was on the direct instructions of team manager Waxenburger, and a reluctance on his part to delegate work. In fact, when Waldegard’s replacement rear axle was being installed, it was Waxenburger himself who was under the car doing the job. Furthermore, the team was using American-type Citizens’ Band radios which were low-powered, picked up tremendous interference and had a very limited range even in line of sight. Even with an airborne relay station, communications were very difficult and sometimes broke down altogether.

The vastness of Kenya is such that a pretty comprehensive service network is required to give competitors the support they need. Gone are the days when the Safari was just a contest between cars and their occupants, and even private entrants now recruit their friends to drive out into the bush to supply them with fuel, tyres and spares at predetermined locations. For a works team, such support is vital, and in order to maintain control over a scattered battalion of moving, leap-frogging support vehicles, two-way radios are installed in competing cars and service cars, and the problem of signal-obstructing mountains overcome by having an aircraft circling overhead to relay messages. The undisputed experts in this field are Marshalls (East Africa) Ltd., the Nairobi-based Peugeot importers. Although their service fleet was modest compared with those of their competitors, their efficient communications rendered them extremely effective. They put a pressurised, twin turbo-prop aircraft up at 33,000 feet, installed high-powered VHF radios, maintained strict communications discipline, set up an operations room in the top floor boardroom of their Nairobi head offices and ran a faultless operation which put those of other teams to shame. It should be noted that the personnel running the operation were, all Marshalls’ executives and all seasoned Safari competitors. Indeed, managing director Paddy Cliff has twice won the event as a co-driver.

Were it not for the communications system of the Peugeot team the organisers would very likely have lost control over the rally, for they were using no communications system at all save for getting section times back to Rally HQ by public or private telephone or by amateur radio, and frequently made requests to the Peugeot operations room to let them know what was going on. Alas, although the Peugeot team was most effectively run, the V6 engines of the 504 Coupes were not up to it and three of the four cars retired, leaving that of Jean-Claude Lefebvre (last year’s winning co-driver) to finish in twelfth place. It should be said that the engine problems were not all inherent, Lampinen, for instance, running his main bearings some 40 kilometres after cracking his sump on a rock.

Before the start there were very few bets being put on the three-car Fiat team, for the 131 Abarths had given much trouble in practice and they were expected to be too fragile even to finish. But predictions of this kind are rarely obeyed by events, and all three cars finished in the first ten. They were very quick, but gave occasional trouble which caused delays and none of them was ever leading the event.

Praise must go to Finnish driver Markku Alen for his third place; he is by no means a long distance man and prefers much shorter sprint-type events such as those popular in Europe. Furthermore, it was his first visit to Kenya and it is to his credit that he coped admirably with the peculiar characteristics of that country, although he made no secret of the fact that it wasn’t really his kind of rally.

The Datsun team, like that of Marshalls, has considerable experience of competing in the Safari, and even if the company tackles no other events in the year a works team is always sent to Kenya at Eastertime. Like the others, they use factory mechanics backed up by local people, and although their 160J saloons were not quite as fast as the cars of their rivals they were strong enough to keep going on the rough roads whilst others were stopping for repairs or replacements. The cars of Rauno Aaltonen and Harry Kallstrom did suffer rear suspension failures which cost considerable time, but that of Shekhar Mehta ran almost faultlessly and he was always right up among the leaders. In fact, when he took the lead from Hannu Mikkola on the final night, it was the third time that he had occupied that position.

It was Waldegard, in his 450SLC, who was in front by the time night fell on the first day, but later the lead was held by Mehta in his Datsun, Makinen in his Peugeot 504 Coupe, Mikkola in his 450SLC then finally Mehta. Altogether, the lead changed hands some eight times, but always between these drivers. For one section Makinen and Mehta were joint leaders, and at one time there was an altercation between them after Mehta had caught up with Makinen who failed to move over to let the Datsun by. Eventually, Mehta managed to get alongside, only to be sideswiped by the Peugeot.

From the 66 starters, only the cars of Datsun, Fiat, Peugeot and Mercedes could be said to have a winning chance, and it turned out, as it invariably does, that the winner was the one who stopped least for repairs. After the various changes of lead throughout the first and second legs of the rally, Hannu Mikkola seemed certain to return victorious to Nairobi at the end of the third and final leg, for his advantage over Shekhar Mehta was sufficient to allow him to refrain from pushing the Mercedes to the point of breakage risk.

However, around midnight on the final night the fan of the car worked itself loose and holed the radiator. It was by no means a small hole, and as soon as Mikkola saw the temperature go up he stopped. When he saw the damage he had no alternative but to wait for team-mate Waldegard to come along, for his own radio had stopped working and he could only get help by asking Waldegard to summon it on his radio. Eventually mechanics did arrive, but the whole process took time, and when Mikkola finally got under way again he had lost a good hour and this let Mehta through into the lead. Mikkola pulled out all the stops after that and took time off Mehta on almost every section, but the end was too near and there just wasn’t enough distance left for him to regain the lead.

No mention of the Safari would be complete without reference to the weather, for the Kenyan climate plays an enormous part in the event. Indeed, the possibility of rain is one of the biggest topics of conversation in Nairobi just before Easter, putting British bar-stool bunion-watchers to shame. The Safari is more than just a contest between cars and their crews; competitors have to consider the violence of nature as well, and the possibility of sudden thunderstorms, flash floods, instant rivers and even roads and bridges washed away has to be taken into account. Some say that for this reason the Safari cannot properly be called a rally, but most regard it as one step beyond, an adventure without parallel in the international calendar.

This year was more dry than wet, but nevertheless there were many localised storms which produced ribbons of glutinous mud in which many got stuck and needed the help of strategically placed 4-w-d vehicles. Alas, many of the privateers running towards the end of the field had no resources to provide for such luxuries, and when they came along the “mud cars” of the works teams had long since gone. Many of them spent so much time hauling and pushing that they went beyond their maximum lateness and were out of the rally.

One incident deserves to be singled out, and that was the sudden rising of the water in a drift near Kitui, during the return from Mombasa on the second leg. The leading six cars got through, and then the water became so deep and fast-flowing that to attempt a crossing would have been suicidal. A queue formed, and although a few crews led by the wily Joginder Singh in his Mercedes found a way around the drift by travelling in a wide circle to cross not the main flow of water but several of its smaller tributaries, it was well over three hours before any attempt at crossing could be made.

At this time the organisers were out of touch with the situation, and it was only by courtesy of the communications network of the Peugeot team (they had a radio-equipped 4-w-d vehicle on each side of the drift) that they got to know what was going on. Eventually the cars made the crossing one by one at the end of a rope hauled by a 4-w-d truck, with another such vehicle holding back from behind to prevent the car being washed away by the strong current. It was by no means an incident new to the Safari, for it has happened on countless occasions, but it nevertheless taxes ingenuity each time it does happen. The 21 muddy finishers took nearly nine hours to get back to Nairobi, the first getting back just after 1 pm on Easter Monday and the last around 10 pm. As it happened the organisers extended maximum permitted lateness to allow the last runners to be classified as finishers, a leniency which they have not shown to others in past years.

One might say that the high proportion of finishers, nearly a third of the starters, indicates that the Safari was not as tough as it has been, but that wasn’t really the case at all. The Safari is always the most arduous of rallies, and the retirement rate this year was reduced by several extensions of maximum lateness, and the cancellation of all penalties in the section which contained that obstructing, torrent-filled drift at Kiwi.

Although a Datsun won, Ford still holds the lead in the World Rally Championship for Makes, but more significant are positions in the Drivers’ Championship; Mikkola’s second place, and Waldegard’s sixth, have put these drivers into the joint lead of the series, each with 51 points and both are contracted Ford drivers released on this occasion to drive for Mercedes. It remains to be seen how the Ford team will handle the possibility of this personal rivalry within its camp, although we hasten to add that Mikkola and Waldegard are the best of friends and will remain so. G.P.

SAFARI RALLY

RALLY CIRCUIT OF IRELAND

Winners of the Circuit of Ireland International Rally over the Easter weekend were Pentti AlrIkkala/Risto

Virtanen in this DTV Chevette 2300HS. This fast. “toughest ever” tarmac Circuit caused carnage amongst some of the leading opposition. Alrikkala dominated throughout and finished more than ten minutes ahead of the Coleman/Donohue Escort AS 1800. Third were Fisher/Frazer (Escort RS 1800), fourth, Buckley/Caplice (Escort AS 1800) fifth, D. McCartney/Scott (Chrysler Sunbeam) and sixth were 8lomqvist/Cederberg In a Saab Turbo after a brave drive with virtually no brakes.

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