Its organisation is antiquated, its timing system straight out of a British event of some twenty years ago, its communications hopelessly inadequate and its results processing probably the slowest of all comparable events throughout the world, yet the Safari Rally continues to be one of the most physically gruelling, mechanically demanding and highly popular events in the calendar. What is more, it takes place in a country which provides an element of adventure which is quite unique, and we have come across no-one who has not enjoyed every moment of the event, no matter what his or her capacity.
Life’s lazy pace in Kenya can be bitterly frustrating to those with urgent rally preparations to perform, and Safari visitors soon learn that all manner of routine tasks, from acquiring a temporary two-way radio licence to collecting an item of spare parts from customs, can very easily stretch from one day to the next, and the next, Indeed, the Swahili badu kidogo might have come straight from the Spanish mañana.
Even the rally organisers, beset by headaches which do not affect their counterparts in other countries, find themselves snowed under by administrative and other work which is desperately in need of streamlining. However, the rally is outstandingly successful, is well known throughout the world and is followed avidly by the entire population of the country — which is more than can be said even of the RAC Rally. The danger of this situation is all too evident, as every Monte-Carlo follower will know. Success and popularity can breed apathy, and no good ever came from resting too long on one’s laurels. The Safari is on a pedestal, but unless it is regularly maintained it could one day crumble, and that would be the saddest of days.
Enough of what could be; now to what was. As always, the Safari continued to shun the use of closed-road special stages and ran on open roads and tracks with timing in minutes, not seconds. This can be a little un-nerving in the vicinity of townships but is nevertheless accepted by all concerned. In the open bush there is hardly any traffic at all as everyone knows of the passage of the event, but it does sometimes happen that the driver of a truck, tractor or grossly overladen matatu (pick-up converted into a taxi) will take to the Safari route.
Safari talk without mention of the weather is like the proverbial Yorkshire apple pie without the cheese. The Easter weekend falls between one of Kenya’s dry seasons and the coming of the Long Rains, and the whole character of the Safari depends on whether those rains come before or after the event. If they come before, the entire rally can be a long, sticky battle through endless ribbons of glutinous mud and wheel-spinning, clutch-burning climbs up very slippery escarpments. If they stay away until after Easter, the rally is invariably a hot slog through blankets of thick, choking dust, accompanied by red eyes, sore throats and croak-voiced tales of near misses whilst overtaking through the dense clouds.
Of course, there can be a mixture of both conditions as short, violent thunderstorms soak small areas of the countryside at night and the morning sun rapidly dries everything up again.
As Safari week approaches, attentions focus on the sky, the wind and conditions to the South in Dar es Salaam, for the rains usually come up from Tanzania. Official weather forecasts are nothing to go by, and those who know usually keep in contact with farmers whose timing instincts for planting, reaping or crop spraying can usually be relied upon to provide a guide for the choice of tyres, the deployment of mud vehicles and the number of replacement air filter elements which have to be kept in readiness.
This year the days before the rally saw as many upturned faces as ever, but apart from isolated thunderstorms and the occasional night-time rainstorm over Nairobi, there was no real sign of the Long Rains themselves. They were certainly not far off, for the temperature and the humidity soared, but they kept off until after Easter and the rally itself was the driest for many years. One solitary thunderstorm co the North of Kilimanjaro did turn a road into a mud ribbon, and it was regrettable that this section of the route was taken out in favour of a trip up the tarmac of the Mombasa-Nairobi road.
The heat during the rally was near unbearable. Even seasoned local people were complaining and exhaustion affected everyone, especially at the coast where it is always much hotter and more humid than up-country. The interiors of parked cars became like ovens, fingers were being burnt on bonnet tops, salt tablets were producing their customary nausea, exposed beer bottles were exploding and perspiration was being dried almost as fast is it was forming.
The hot air was doing little to help keep engines cool and up the steep climbs of the Taita Hills competitors were having to turn heaters to full blast in order to keep water temperatures below danger level. Their own discomfort was obvious when one after another they arrived at service points, grabbed bottles from cool boxes, gulped down some of the contents and poured the remainder over their heads.
Throughout all the heat and the dust the main challengers for victory were Mercedes and Datsun, the former with all the no-cost-spared resources of the mighty German company and the latter with far less ostentation but considerably more experience. Peugeot was not there, but Marshalls (EA) Ltd. entered a single 504 for veteran Bert Shankland from Tanzania, whilst Opel was highly delighted at getting two Ascona 400s in the first ten at the first Safari attempt for this car.
Mercedes, with a vast fleet of service vehicles, an army of staff, air support by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and a stock of tyres and spare parts that would keep the average rally team going for a whole year, was tipped as the favourite, but not even the fattest wallet in the world can be sure of buying success and things didn’t work out according to Stuttgart strategy.
The 450 SLCs were impeccably prepared and looked brutally purposeful, but not even the long stints of meticulous computer-recorded testing of last year were able to show up the defects which were the team’s undoing during the rally itself. There is no harder test than actual competition and under the rigours of the rally hub failures resulted in loss of wheels and huge chunks of penalty which put the cars out of the running.
The Datsuns were lighter, not so very much slower, more reliable and certainly mechanically simpler than the Mercedes, with the result that Japanese service stops were invariably brisker than those of the Germans. What is more, the Japanese mechanics were able to make precautionary component changes fairly quickly whereas the Stuttgart people either had no time for thls or had not built it into their service plans.
After the first and second legs of the rally the Datsun mechanics descended on the Violets of Shekhar Mehta and Rauno Aaltonen, using up all the available time to change any assembly which could be changed. They were given complete, new rear axles for instance, the time for such a change being about eleven minutes. In contrast, something like an hour was needed for a similar operation on a Mercedes, so no such precautions were taken when the 450 SLCs arrived at Nairobi after the first and second legs.
This had an immense bearing (unintentional pun) on the result, for very soon after the start of the second leg Hannu Mikkola lost a rear wheel from his 450 SLC and had to sit waiting in the bush for helicopter and service cars to arrive. He would have got going eventually, but as co-driver Arne Hertz was slowing down following cars one of them struck his hand and smashed two of his fingers. Dosed with pain-killing morphine, he wasn’t able to continue, although team manager Waxenburger at first thought otherwise when he took Hertz’s place alongside Mikkola and continued through the route to Mombasa.
He had hoped that the organisers would have allowed this temporary substitution, but of course it was completely against all the rules. In any case, Hertz was in no condition to continue, although we imagine that he would have struggled gamely on if he thought that there would have been a chance of success.
Earlier, in the first leg, Waldegård (Mercedes) and Mehta (Datsun) were having a very close tussle, first one leading by a minute and then the other, with Cowan (Mercedes) and Aaltonen (Datsun) in close attendance. But both Waldegård and Cowan spent some time off the road in the second leg, and then experienced those hub failures in the third. The Datsuns never faltered and they sped on to first and second places, that of Mehta and Doughty with neither a dent nor a scratch, only a replaced rear screen, but that of Aaltonen and Drews showing the evidence of a very quick somersault which caused no more than a minute’s delay.
Disappointment would be an extremely mild description of Mercedes feelings at the end, for the team, and many others including the bookmakers, felt that their success was assured. But there is no short cut around the lessons which can only be learned in the heat of contest and we are sure that the Stuttgart team has now realised this and will continue with an active competitions programme.
Mehta’s success came from exactly the same kind of inspired, sensible driving which took him, with co-driver Mike Doughty, to a win last year. He now has three Safari wins to his credit, and next year he will undoubtedly be striving for his fourth, to beat the score of veteran Joginder Singh who also has three wins behind him.
We would be lacking if we were to ignore a commercial aspect of the rally, its sponsorship by the cigarette company Marlboro. This was the first of three years’ backing by that company and there were a few troublesome points to be sorted out before the start, mainly concerning the logo which was incorporated in the rally numbers displayed on the doors and roofs of the competing cars. Sadly, a BBC film unit rook exception to the size of these logos and left for home before the start of the rally with the explanation that the BBC would not tolerate such blatant advertising as cars made to look like cigarette packets.
In fairness, we must say that this was indeed an exaggeration, as photographs on these pages will show. Marlboro was investing a sizeable sum in the event and was entitled to a reasonable return. After all, well paid pipers should only play tunes chosen for them. Ironically, BBC news programmes eventually showed film supplied to them by freelance agencies — with the “offensive” logos clearly in view.
Whatever its administrative shortcomings and however many people feel that its organisation is in dire need of being updated, the Safari nevertheless remains outstandingly in a class of its own. Changes may be needed behind the scenes, bur the competition itself should be left strictly alone. Rallying adventures are rare enough these days, and the world would be a sadder place if anyone meddled with the make-up of this great classic. — G.P.