Marlboro Safari Rally

Would you believe it possible for a driver to win a World Championship rally having twice broken his rear axle in competitive sections? Or for a driver to be classed as a finisher after amassing penalties totalling more than a day? Those whose rallying has never taken thorn beyond Europe would probably give a negative answer to both questions, but anyone with experience of rallying in Africa, Kenya in particular, would know that different standards apply there, and that victory only comes to those who stretch their tenacity to a limit which most Europeans would consider pointless. 

Outright winners of the 1983 Marlboro Safari Rally were Ari Vatanen and Terry Harryman in an Ascona 400 of the Rothmans Opel Rally Team. Each had just one previous Safari under his belt, and it says much for their adaptability that they were able to disregard their accumulated European instincts and apply the totally different strategy of Africa whereby people invariably keep going no matter how long they have been delayed.

The smallest unit of Safari time is a minute, seconds are too miniscule even to be counted, and there is absolutely no point in setting up special stages in a country where road closures would be quite ineffective against ambling giraffe, the cattle herd of a Masai family or a hopelessly overladen matatu, its driver as determined as any rally man to complete his journey and collect his fares.

The contest is simple and straightfonvard, and given spice by whatever added hazards Mother Nature decides to produce. It isn’t quite the trail-blazing adventure it used to be, when instant torrents, broken bridges and mud baths of black cotton soil were all considered fair tests of the ingenuity of competitors. The organisers are nowadays more conservative in their choice of nods and endeavour to avoid criticism by staying well clear of anything which might become impassable under the onslaught of a tropical thunderstorm. Even so-called all-weather roads can vanish or become blocked during the season of the Long Rains, so alternative routes are always ready up the clerk of the course’s sleeve, most of these having been issued in advance so that competitors have the opportunity to practise them along with the main rally route. 

The general principles of team management apply as much to the Safari as they do to other rallies, but there are additional circumstances peculiar only to this event so that extra services have to be provided by anyone who wants to be in with a chance of victory. The route passes through such remote country, over which road travel is sometimes slow, that more service cars are needed than in other rallies, and facilities provided for the distribution of fuel and tyres. Four-wheel-drive “mud cars” assume a role similar to that of ice-note cars, remaining at any wet spots ready to tow if necessary, and chase cars driven by non-competing rally drivers follow their precious charges almost every inch of the way, often contravening the rally regulations and invariably creating additional and unfair dust hazards.

Aircraft are also put to good use, not as spotters but as airborne radio relay stations without which communications in mountain areas (and there are many of then) would be impossible by line-of-sight VHF. Kenya pioneered air support for rallying, and it all began when local crews enlisted the help of friends to transport various bits and pieces around bush airstrips. The greater versatility of helicopters is used by the more affluent teams to provide help if required in otherwise inaccessible parts of the route. 

As far as car preparation is concerned, suspensions must be beefed up and raised to cope with the rough roads, cooling systems made capable of dealing with the ambient temperature of equatorial Africa, and both engines and interiors protected as much as possible from the ingress of the dense, fine dust which traces the progress of cars along bush roads. 

To Kenya the Safari is far more than just an annual sporting event. It has become part of its national heritage, and the entire population comes out to watch and cheer. The President himself drops the start flag, and enthusiasm and excitement is evident all over the country, even where the rally does not pass. It is easy to see why a car manufacturer considers the juicy plum of Safari success a fruit well worth picking. 

A team which has had this avowed objective since 1980 is Opel, but manager Tony Fall has never been as naïve as to imagine that a win can come without experience. “It take three years of trying to win a Safari,” he said four Easters ago, and he wasn’t far wrong.

The other teams this year were Datsun and Audi, the former almost as steeped in Safari tradition as the event itself and the latter tackling the rally for the first time. Indeed, it would have appeared most odd if Audi had not been there with their four-wheel-drive Quattros — almost like Finland deciding not to compete in the Winter Olympics. Much was expected of the cars, and to finish second and third at the first attempt was no mean achievement. 

The weather plays a significant part in affecting the course of most rallies, but none as much as the Safari, and in the weeks before the start predictions vary from the logical to the wild and ridiculous. Climatic experts spring up everywhere, but so uncertain has African weather become in the past few years that nothing is sure until it actually arrives. In our opinion the best judges are the farmers, who maintain that the Long Rains never begin until five days after the wind has turned to blow from the South. They were pretty well right in this respect, and the first real rain of the weekend came on Easter Monday, the last day of the rally, when a thunderstorm broke over the escarpment of the Rift Valley, some thirty miles north of Nairobi. 

A dry Safari means endless clouds of choking dust, red eyes, and bitter frustration at being unable to overtake. A wet one brings the mud cars out in full force, causes mechanics to pack as many spare clutches as they can muster, and sends co-drivers looking for those old pairs of rugby boots, the best footwear for effective pushing.

This year the rains kept away, and although there were distant ramblings across the bush the rally was totally dry save for a few watersplashes near Mau Narok and a dampened final section of the third leg. The dust caused all manner of problems, to engines as well as competitors, and the only respite came when the wind was sufficiently strong to blow the dense clouds away in a few seconds, as it was during parts of the second leg. 

The Audi team was hoping for a wet one, of course, so that Quattro four-wheel-drive could be put to good use; not a complete mud bath, but just wet enough to make the murram slippery over the hard sub-soil so that traction would be at a premium. The Datsun people seemed to want it even wetter, when local experience, especially on how to get quickly around deep mud holes, would pay off. 

The heat also affected the going; tyres became dangerously hot on the dry tarmac of the Mombasa Road, water and oil temperatures were frequently above the red lines, and even brake and clutch fluid was boiling. Interiors became not just uncomfortable but unbearable, especially if windows were kept closed to pressurise the cars against dust and heaters were switched on to assist engine cooling. Nausea, tiredness, loss of concentration and a diminishing of the will to press on all had to be fought against. 

Spanning five days, the contest is long, hard and wearying, and no amount of sprint-type experience will prepare anyone for the sudden transition from the style of Europe to that of Kenya. Stamina, which one rarely needs in Europe nowadays, is essential, as well as the determination to carry on no matter how much delay has been caused by time-consuming repairs. 

This is the sort of adventure which stands out among the other qualifiers of the World Rally Championship, and even without that series this is one rally which every manufacturer, every driver, will always want to win. 

Six times the lead changed hands during the course of the event, most of the time being shared between Audi and Datsun drivers, but it was the final change which was the most important, when Vatanen took his Opel into the lead during the third leg and stayed there to win from Hannu Mikkola’s Quattro by just six minutes, a very small margin indeed by Safari standards.

Initially it was Mikkola who took the lead, but after just a handful of controls his water pump pulley broke up, causing all manner of overheating and other problems. Immediately a helicopter took mechanics and spares to his aid, but the delay was considerable — well over an hour and a half, in fact — and his team-mate Michèle Mouton took over. 

At the same time Vatanen was left fighting the dust of back markers after he had been delayed with a broken differential, whilst in a very short time each of the three Audis had lost their rear screens through body flexing and the apertures were sealed by plastic sheets taped in place.

Mouton lost a wheel when untightened nuts loosened, and lost her lead when subsequent suspension damage had to be put right. The absence of one wheel didn’t seem to worry her much, and the sight of her Quattro raising sparks and digging a furrow even in the tarmac brought back memories of similarly stricken Saabs being driven just as spiritedly in the past. 

It was then Salonen’s turn, but his gearbox started to lose its ratios, and when he stopped to have it changed his team-mate Mehta moved ahead. People began to wonder whether he would make it five wins in a row and six in all, but on the approach to Nairobi at the end of the first leg his engine developed a serious misfire and finally stopped with a broken camshaft. Mechanics slogged hard to put matters right, but the job simply could not be done in the time available.

Leader into Nairobi was Vic Preston Jnr., son of the 1955 Safari winner, in one of the three works Quattros, and by dint of sensible driving throughout the second leg beset only hung on to that lead but extended it dramatically as other cars were delayed by the need to stop for repairs. He drove just a little slower, and thereby avoided any serious damage. 

Kirkland, by this time, had also stopped with his Datsun’s camshaft broken, whilst Vatanen had hit another zebra — his first violent encounter with one of these animals had been in practice. He also broke another rear axle, but was sent on his way after only dropping from sixth to eighth place.

The third leg, which began just before dawn on the Sunday, seemed likely to be a simple matter for Preston, but when his lead dropped from half an hour to just under a quarter as the result of stopping to replace a broken turbocharger, he realised that he would have to go faster to stay ahead of Salonen. That was his undoing; in dense dust he attempted to overtake a slower car, his a rock and did so much damage that he could not go on. 

The lead that Salonen inherited was greater than half an hour, but he lost nearly all that when, like the others, his camshaft also broke. By the time he got going again two of his fellow countrymen, Vatanen and Mikkola, were just six minutes apart and wondering whether Salonen would be back to make it a three-cornered Finnish fight to the end. Alas, he did not, for the Datsun’s head gasket blew and stopped the car completely. 

Meanwhile, Mouton lost a little time with a broken alternator, Aaltonen, the man who has been tackling the Safari since the early ‘sixties and has achieved second places but never a win, stopped when his oil pump quit working, causing the engine to seize. 

Long before this there was evidence that teams were listening in to their rivals’ radio messages, picking up useful tips that someone would, for instance. shortly be deliberately clocking in a few minutes early after an easy section (and accepting the penalty for that) in order to escape the dust of the car ahead on the tight section which followed. Later, we heard that perhaps in the future at least one team will be investing in rather costly voice scramblers just to keep their tactical talk confidential. 

That was about the end of it, for after Nakuru on the Monday moming the sections which followed were not really enough for Mikkola to make an impression on Vatanen. One man who did push too hard without need was Rob Collinge in his Range Rover, which he had driven remarkably to keep fifth place. With a huge lead over the next man he had no need to hurry, but on the final non-tarmac section, made slippery by that thunderstorm we mentioned, he went off the road, rolled and destroyed the car. The handling was not as it should have been at that time, for he had lost his front drive and was coping with the increased oversteer of r.w.d. only, but nevertheless he could have driven through like a tourist and still kept his place. 

Britisher Tony Fowkes had broken a hub on his Subaru, but team-mate Jonathan Ashman made it to the finish in his little 4.w.d. car, albeit in 22nd place and with a time loss of over 26 hours.

It was one of the best organised and hotly contested Safaris we have seen for years. Kenya weather was at its most docile, and we would have preferred mixed conditions, but nevertheless the rally stood out as an outstanding example of how fun and adventure can still be mixed with the intense rivalry of World Cluimpionship rallying.

Among the points, Mikkola has extended his lead and now has 65 to Mouton’s 37, Vatanen’s 34 and Röhrl’s 32, whilst among the makes the leaders are Audi with 48 points, followed by Opel with 37 and Lancia 32. — G.P.