Marlboro Safari Rally
REPETITIONS of victory in World Championship rallies are not exactly uncommon. Quite a number of drivers have scored doubles, others have completed hat-tricks whilst four wins by the same driver are not unkown. But to win five times is unique, a distinction achieved in Kenya last month when Shekhar Mehta won the Marlboro Safari Rally in a Datsun Violet GT.
Four of those five wins have been in succession, each time with co-driver Mike Doughty, whilst the previous occasion was a few years before, in a Datsun 240Z with Lofty Deems, in recent years the regular partner of Mehta’s arch-rival Rauno Aaltonen.
Following last year’s sour end when protests from within the Datsun team embittered the relationship between Mehta and Aaltonen, those two drivers have no longer been team-mates, and this year Mehta drove for Datsun and Aaltonen for Opel, the only two factories to send their works teams to the Safari.
A shortage of professional teams always tends to detract from the impact of a competition, and there can be no doubt that the Safari would have been more interesting had one or two more factories sent the, cars — Audi, for instance — but the two-team duel, Opel with two cars and Datsun with five, was nonetheless enthralling as first one team encountered trouble and then the other.
African rallying has much in common with farming; they are both linked firmly to the weather, and just as too little or too much rain can harm crops, so these conditions can change the fortunes of those whose sport it is to drive motor cars competitively in conditions as close to raw nature as any rally can provide.
Eastertime, traditional weekend of the Safari since it began in 1953, is about the starting time of the longer of Kenya’s two annual rainy seasons, and a great deal depends on whether the rally takes place in the dry or the wet. Tyre selection, final drive ratios, equipment to be carried, deployment of four-wheel-drive support vehicles and a host of other things depend very much on the weather prospects and in the week before the rally there is often a great deal of consultation with farmers and aviators who follow Kenya’s weather patterns very closely indeed.
Some cars may be better in mud than others, but not as competitive when the going is firm, whilst other cars may perform in the opposite manner. Datsun, for instance, was hoping for a generally wet rally this year, whereas Opel was casting the bones towards a dry weekend.
That isn’t the entire picture, of course, for the position on the road also has a bearing on results and competitors strive not only for the lowest times but to achieve a running order (not always the same as penalty order) which suits them best. In dry weather, for instance, he who runs at the head of the field is not troubled by the dust of others, whereas through mud and water it can be an advantage to watch the progress of others before tackling a sticky patch.
This total dependence on the weather to forge the character of the Safari has been criticised by some who claim that the event is more a game of chance than an odds-even contest. We disagree with this opinion and would go further by arguing that the Safari is far more a true rally than its European counterparts. In the series of short sprints which make up most rallies in Europe nowadays, competitors are matched only against each other, and when penalty differences are so small, often only a handful of seconds, a huge time loss can result in a despondency which produces total loss of personal performance.
In the Safari all manner of adversaries are ranged against competitors, and in an event which has differences of minutes, even hours, only the most tenacious are able to survive, let alone win. The winner this year, for instance, used no less than five rear axles in the course of the five day event, resulting from failures which would have put him on the retirement list of any European event.
Likewise Walter Röhrl, who finished second in his Opel Ancona 400, spent much time stuck in mud holes. Had the same happened on a special stage event he would certainly have exceeded his maximum permitted lateness.
The great thing about this unique event is the diversity of the difficulties facing competitors. They drive on bush tracks which are not really closed to other “traffic” and all must expect around the nest bend anything from a matatu (a pick-up truck with added rear body containing twenty or more seated and clinging passengers) to an angry water buffalo. It would help greatly, of course, if areas of dense population were avoided, and in this respect we feel that the rally could be improved by going further afield.
Another feature of the Safari is the use by teams of four-wheel-drive “mud cars” running ahead of competitors and fast “chase cars”, usually replica rally cars rebuilt after being used for practice, running behind them.
The mud car crews drive through sections ahead of the field and report conditions by radio, if necessary remaining at bad mud holes in order to tow out competing cars if they get stuck. The chase cars, carrying spares, tools and a mechanic, follow competitors through the sections in order to give instant assistance in the event of trouble. If a certain spare part is not carried, then the chase car is cannibalised in order to get the competitors going, and this ploy brought succour to several crews this year, including the winners.
The whole lot is linked by radio, and an aircraft is invariably used in order that VHF messages can be relayed between ground stations which would otherwise be out of contact due to mountains obstructing line of sight.
A week or so before the start of this year’s rally the long drought ended when the skies clouded over and intermittent rain, with the occasional violent but localised thunderstorm, began the transformation of the countryside from burnt brown to lush green. Competitors went out on additional recce trips to see whether conditions had changed, team managers wondered whether they had engaged enough mud car crews, and the organisers made further route checks before considering alternatives and debating again whether their published section target times would be adequate. But the Long Rains did not come in their full ferocity, and although there were thunderstorms which soaked isolated parts of the route, created very sticky mud holes and made some twisty mountain roads very slippery, most of the 5,000 km route was nevertheless on the dry side. The first leg went southwards to Mombasa and back, following the direction of the country’s main tarmac road and making loops into the hilly areas of Chyulu, Taita, Shimba and Machakos, and the flat areas around Rukanga and Ganza. The Datsuns seemed to have the edge on the Opels on the way South, whilst among those who got stuck for a while (both Chyulu and Rukanga were wet and muddy) were Tony Pond (Datum), and Walter Röhrl (Opel) who, among the professionals, had the least experience of the Safari.
But on the return journey the Datsun’s rear aides began to leak and fail, and the delays were enough to allow Aaltonen’s Opel into the lead. Mehta needed two axle changes in the area of the Taita Hills, whilst Mike Kirkland’s car stopped when his axle cracked in two and fell to the ground, all of which taxed Datsun’s resources to the full as spare units were ferried around the area at high speed.
Throughout most of the second leg, which ran to the North-West via Narok, Kakamega and Kapenguria before returning via the Cherangani Hills, Eldoret and Lake Naivasha, Aaltonen kept his lead, but on the return journey his rear axle also broke and after the delay whilst a chase car went in to exchange axles with the compelling car Mehta was back in the lead again.
By this time a team of three private Toyota Corollas entered by Middlesex County AC was down to one, the others having respectively got stuck in the mud and blown a head gasket. The two 21-year-old girls Lynda Morgan and Ruth Hillier were stopped by a head-on collision with a non-competing car, fortunately without injury, whilst Vic Elford and Chris Bates put their Subaru into a ditch and seconds later rolled when a front wheel came off.
One of the most amazing performances was put up by Rob Collinge and Mike Fraser in a Range Rover which Collinge had prepared himself. Its suspension was the best we have seen on such a vehicle and he drove it with a gusto and determination which delighted everyone. Unfortunately his bonnet flew open on one occasion and with all the driver’s view obstructed, it hit a ditch hard and broke its front axle. This, along with rear axle and windscreen, was later changed and Collinge continued to a most commendable sixth place. Surely it is high time that this most able driver is given a place in a works team, for he is certainly of professional material.
The third leg went again to the North, but more to the East than the second, rounding Mount Kenya in an anti-clockwise direction and returning via Nakuru. Aaltonen kept pressing hard to make up the gap between himself and Mehra, obviously hoping that another axle failure would delay the Kenyan. His aide was, in fact, changed again, but it didn’t help Aaltonen for his engine stopped with a bang when a con-rod punched a hole through the side of the cylinder block.
There were some nasty incidents to the East of Mount Kenya, particularly around Meru, where cases of rock throwing were reported by several competitors, some having windows broken and some being injured slightly. At one place a wooden bridge had been ripped up and the planks used to make a barrier across the road, stopping competitors so that they became easy targets for rocks.
George Barbour, a coast farmer driving an Escort prepared in Britain by Paul Ridgeway, had survived a roll which necessitated a replacement steering box, only to hit a barrier of rocks, then stopping with a broken stub axle too far from service assistance to be able to continue.
These incidents, even if they are given little prominence in bulletins, are harmful to the reputation of this fine event, and if police are unable to prevent this kind of disruption the only solution seems to be to route the event away from known trouble spots in the future. —
Tony Pond and Terry Harryman, on their first attempt at the Safari, were at first rather unenthusiastic about what they said was more a Iottery than a rally, but after surviving a long delay stuck in deep mud, and broken steering which sent their Damon careering off the road and down a bank, they finished a most creditable fourth and said they would most certainly like to tackle it again. This is the third and final year of Marlboro’s initial sponsorship contract for the event, but there is an option to renew and were we in their shoes we would most certainly view this tough, unique event as one of the finest publicity vehicles in the world. Next year it will be under new management, for Bharat Bhardwaj, the chairman for many years, has relinquished his timeconsuming position, whilst the office of general has been accepted by winning co-driver Mike Doughty. In the World Championship, Röhrl now leads with 47 points from Michele Mouton with 28, Per Eklund with 25 and Stig Blomqvist and Shekhar Mehta with 20 each. The leading make is Opel with 46, followed by Audi with 34, Datsun with 18 and Toyota with 16. — G.P.