Safari Rally

When a rally takes place in some of the toughest terrain imaginable, is run smoothly and efficiently by organisers whose fingers are always at the control buttons, and Is blessed by a talented field of the world’s best drivers, it has the necessary ingredients for a superb and memorable competition.

Add the inevitable African seasoning of unpredictable and rapidly changing weather conditions and you have the correct mix for one of the most exciting, closely contested and incident-packed rallies which the World Championship has ever seen, which is precisely how we would describe the 1985 Marlboro Safari Rally, held over the Easter weekend in Kenya.

Professionals came in profusion to man the cars of works teams from Audi, Opel, Peugeot, Toyota, Nissan and Lancia, not to mention the less powerful but equally reliable factory-backed cars of Subaru and Daihatsu. Predictions of a four-wheel-drive walkover were shattered, and form followers were confused when the winner turned out to be a young driver tackling the Safari for the first time.

Kenya’s Long Rains of March / April are brought by the great rain-bearing monsoon winds which affect most of the tropical world. Notoriously unpredictable, they can be unutterably violent or even fail altogether, can arrive as a bombshell to sweep away roads and bridges or creep up quietly with no more announcement than a few teasing thunder showers. Vital decisions await their whims, and rally managers may have to stake all on their severity, or whether they arrive at all.

Preparations for the Safari are therefore more weather-orientated that those of any other rally, and although heed is taken of meteorological forecasts, it can be amusing to see experts in sophisticated modern technologies consulting farmers, and even looking for the emergence of tree frogs from their dry season hiding places.

This year, violent thunderstorms were moving around the country weeks before the start, and everyone felt that it would be a wet Safari. The scorched, brown countryside had turned to a lush green, animals no longer had to search for waterholes, and bookmakers shortened the odds on four-wheel-drive cars. However, What transpired was a mixture, neither a wet Safari nor a dry one. Huge chunks of the route were dry and dusty, made rough and rutted by earlier rain, whilst other parts were enlivened by storms and punctuated by floods and deep mud holes.

During practice, cars were getting stuck in wet areas, and were being broken on the harder, rougher roads. Some were even rolled, and many were glad that they had rented VHF radios from the organisers so that they could call their service cars to assist. The organisers’ radio network is based on repeater stations on high ground, whereas competing teams have to use high flying aircraft in order to achieve the required range, and they were using these airborne relays only during the rally itself. Apart from fixed wing aircraft, helicopters were also in great demand, and the fact that neither Toyota nor Nissan were using them was due only to lack of aircraft availability. Audi played safe and flew their own in from Germany, whereas Lancia played even safer and rented two of them. Four-wheel-drive cars were also in great demand, and it seemed that every farmer, tour operator and safari guide was driving his overland truck as a mud car for one team or another. Peugeot and Opel were co-operating by sharing the same mud cars, whilst Peugeot and Toyota agreed to another cost-reducing effort by sharing the some radio relay aircraft, Peugeot having automatic repeaters and Toyota relaying manually.

Due to the importance of air support, Nairobi’s Wilson Airport was as much a centre of planning operations as workshops and team managers’ hotel rooms, and whilst each team planned its own movements, the various pilots arranged their own common radio frequency in order to ensure collision avoidance.

The Audi team consisted of just two cars for Mikkola / Hertz and Blomqvist / Cederberg, Rohrl having succeeded in persuading the company’s management to withdraw his entry simply because he dislikes the rough and tumble of African rallies. Mouton was there for the practice, partly as a holiday, but then flew to the Circuit of Ireland as she is this year contesting the British Championship. Lancia brought three cars, one each for Bettega / Perissinot and Alen / Kivimaki, and a third for Preston / Lyall no doubt arranged in conjunction with the use by Lancia of the Preston Snr service organisation.

Opel had two Mantas for Aaltonen / Drews and Weber / Wanger, the former driver having his 22nd attempt at adding the Safari to his list of victories, and the latter making his first competing appearance after driving a chase car last year.

Nissan had four of its 240RSs, three for Kenyan experts Mehta / Combes, Shah / Smith and Kirkland / Levitan, and one for Ivory Coast crew Ambrosino / Le Saux. Toyota brought three of its Cologne based Celica Turbos for Waldegard / Thorszelius, Kankkunen / Gallagher and Horsey / Williamson. Waldegard is a former winner, of course, Kankkunen a young but talented driver tackling his first Safari, and Horsey a Kenyan brought in to join the team due partly to his becoming African Champion last year and partly to his fine performace in last October’s Ivory Coast Rally.

The Peugeot team, flush with success after a string of wins, brought three of its four-wheel-drive, rear-engined 205s for Vatanen / Harryman, Saloom / Harjanne and Saby / Fauchille. Peugeot, too, leaned heavily on the local importers, Marshalls Ltd, for organisational support, but a certain amount of superiority gave one the impression that they had forgotten that Marshalls were winning rallies with 404s long before the factory itself had even begun to think about the sport.

Fowkes / Minns came from the UK to drive one of the 4-wd Subarus, whilst another was driven by local men Tundo / Thompson. lwashita / Nakahara brought a Nissan 240RS from Japan, Stohl / Kaufmann a Lada from Austria, and Siller / Schuller a Nissan 240RS from Germany. Among the Kenyan privateers were Duncan I/Munro in a Corolla, Basil Criticos / Rose in an Audi 80 Quattro, Greg Criticos / Kravos in a Lancia, Morris / Murton in a Celica, the Chodas, husband and wife, in a Datsun, and a trio of Range Rovers driven by Miller / Mathews, Mathews / Mathews and Green / Shemin.

The route, all 3,250 miles of it, was divided into three legs, each starting and finishing in the grounds of Nairobi’s Kenyatta Conference Centre which provided excellent Rally HQ facilities in its block. The first leg went southwards to Mombasa and back, with sections over the vast plains of Tsavo and Amboseli, below the towering snow cap of Kilimanjaro, through the hills of Taita and Machakos, and in the bush and sisal area around Rukanga.

The second leg went to the north-west, crossing the Great Rift Valley and the Mau Escarpment before visiting the dense Tinderet Forest, the tea plantations of Kericho, the towns of Kisumu, Kakamega and Kitale, and the Cherangani Hills before returning to Nairobi via the notorious Kerio Valley and the towns of Eldoret and Nakuru.

The third leg was again in the north, passing Lake Naivasha and Kabarnet before looping through Nyahururu (formerly Thompson Falls) and skirting Maralal on the way to Nanyuki and Meru. Then came a clockwise loop around Mount Kenya to Embu and a twisty section through the valleys of the Aberdare foothills before returning to Nairobi via Thika.

The first day was hot and sunny, but clouds and wind suggested that there would be rain before the end of the leg. Unlike last year, when hardly a minute was lost by the first ten runners all the way down through Loitokitok to the Taita Hills, the Audi team started very early to notch up penalties when the gearboxes of Mikkola and Blomqvist began showing signs of failure. Audi was using new 6-speed units, and it seemed that they were not man enough to cope with the severe stress.

Both cars were given new gearboxes flown to them by helicopter, but not long after he was on his way again Blomqvist came dramatically to a stop when his box literally exploded, scattering bits of the casing over the road.

Peugeot also had trouble when reinforced turbocharger pipe joints proved to be too rigid and started to crack, a problem which continued throughout the event. Saby’s was the first car to show this, followed by Salonen’s, each losing time in the replacement.

The Siller / Schuller Datsun, with Schuller at the wheel, hit a bridge and rolled in the early part of the Taita Hills section and when it was learned that Schuller was unconscious with head injuries, the organisers’ efficient radio network got a message to a control where helicopters were waiting and Peugeot at once withdrew its aircraft from the service operation to fly the injured man to Mombasa Hospital. Happily, he was found not to be seriously injured.

David Horsey’s first works drive came to an early end when he was caught by Kirkland, and, in an effort to stay ahead, he went off the road and rolled. He got going again, but a water leak soon caused head gasket failure and the Toyota was out. Meanwhile, Mikkola’s Audi caught fire during a refuelling operation, and although quick work with fire extinguishers prevented any serious damage, the car’s bonnet was badly burnt. However, there was no sign of the scarring at the mid-leg stop in Mombasa, for the bonnet was discarded and replaced by that of Blomqvist’s car.

At Mombasa, Lancia had the advantage, with Bettega first, Alen second and Preston fourth. Vatanen was third, but his teammates were way down after their turbocharger faults. Weber was fifth, followed by Waldegard, Kirkland, Aaltonen, Kankkunen and Mehta. But the rally had hardly begun, for only five minutes separated first and tenth, and that is almost nothing by Safari standards. The return journey began equally dramatically, for Alen’s Lancia hit a hole very hard and ripped off a front strut and a wheel. He limped on, but stopped with a bang near Samburu when his engine blew up, leaving a fist-sized hole in the block. Team-mate Preston was delayed having his throttle linkage replaced after running for a while with a hand throttle, but Bettaga was in the lead, marginally ahead of Vatanen. Mikkola’s problems were compounded when first a puncture then a defunct starter motor brought more delays, and the former winner’s troublesome drive eventually came to an end at Sultan Hamad, with just one competitive loop to go before the end of the leg, when his Audi’s crankshaft broke. Aaltonen suffered a broken alternator bracket which caused its drive belt to be thrown off, whilst Vatanen needed a new front strut, the top bolt being given a hefty extra washer to strengthen the mounting Saby put his Peugeot off the road and twisted the car so much, not to mention puncturing the radiator, that he was unable to continue.

At the short stop at Amboseli’s Buffalo Lodge, Waldegard had ousted the lead from Bettega by two minutes, whilst in third place was the young Weber, three minutes ahead of Vatanen.

The first leg of the Safari is usually quite undramatic, as drivers play it cautiously, but this year it was certainly not like that, and even on the pre-dawn run back to Nairobi things continued to happen. Lancia experienced great drama before Sultan Hamad when, almost at the same time, Bettega stopped with a defunct fuel pump and Preston with a broken distributor pickup. It was a time of great urgency for the team, but they did manage to get both cars going, even without helicopters, which were not operating in the dark.

In the Machakos Hills it was Peugeot’s turn again, when Salonen’s car stopped with a broken camshaft drive. Again there was no helicopter around, and Salonen began to remove various parts as he waited for the emergency service car which sped in to his rescue. Team-mate Vatanen had to take fuel at a petrol station when a blown fuse stopped the pump feeding from the main tank, and he was left with only his much smaller reserve tank. There was plenty of fuel in the main tank, but no means of using it as the car had no transfer pump from one tank to the other. Waldegard still held the lead at the end of the leg, six minutes ahead of Wanger whose troubles had been no greater than a broken fan belt. Mehta was third, followed by Kankkunen, Kirkland, Aaltonen, Vatanen, Ambrosino, Bettega and Preston. This time, the differences were greater, and 48 minutes separated first and tenth. Retirements had been considerable, and only 38 cars made it into the closed park that Good Friday morning.

The complex technology which went into the production of both the Audis and the Peugeots didn’t seem to be standing up to the rigours of Africa. Perhaps the cars were too sophisticated for such harsh treatment, for the much simpler cars of Toyota, Opel and Nissan were holding the first six places. Soon after the restart, Bettega’s front left suspension strut broke away at the top, and the repair took well over an hour. Worse, the trouble proved to be recurring, and subsequent welding operations led to further time losses. Mehta had similar problems when he had a front strut break, but at least its mountings were intact and gave no trouble after replacement. Aaltonen had several more alternator bracket failures, leading to fan belt shedding.

Waldegard lost his lead to Weber when alternator failure led to a dead battery, Whilst Opel team-mate Aaltonen moved up to second place. That order was short-lived, for the Finn moved ahead before the rest stop at Kakamega, and people began wondering whether he would finally win the Safari after so many years of trying.

Stone throwing was experienced yet again in the western part of the route, with a few broken screens reported, whilst Mehta endured peculiar handling for a while when oversized tyres from a chase car were used to replace punctured ones after his boot lid jammed and he could not get at his own spares. Salonen lost well over half an hour with a faulty alternator.

Kirkland also lost time with a non-charging alternator, but not until loose wiring, swaying around with the motion of the car, produced a very peculiar effect — whenever he braked, his lights went out, which made things very hairy indeed at the approach to corners and hazards. At Kitale, Kankkunen, in third place, waited anxiously for mechanics to replace a rear axle locating arm which was bent and refusing to budge, but the job was eventually done at a cost of no more than a couple of minutes. Salonen lost more time with a cracking turbocharger pipe, but still kept his tenth place, whilst team-mate Vatanen had a faulty windscreen wiper changed, a very necessary repair in view of the number of mud holes.

Bettega’s car had caught fire earlier, but again quick work with extinguishers saved it. It was quite a conflagration while it lasted, and the most efficient form of crowd control the mechanics had seen. Similar methods by other mechanics, who set fire to fly-spray aerosol jets and used them as flame throwers, were not at all popular with crowds, and were discontinued when rock-throwing was threatened in retaliation for the scorching.

Lancia’s engineer, Giorgio Pianta, remarked that because Bettega’s car gave no trouble after the fire, he was tempted to set fire to all ears in future, befOre the start of every rally! But he soon gave up the idea, for Bettega’s car stopped very suddenly near Kapenguria with a blown engine.

That night, after the stop at Nakuru, storms began brewing, and very heavy rain made the going very wet and muddy indeed over the Mau Escarpment, down almost to Narok and back through Hell’s Gate (so called because of steam outlets from the ground) to Lake Naivasha.

Vatanen first suffered a broken oil cooler, then stopped for good with a blown head gasket, whilst Salonen lost time nursing a broken front shock absorber until it could be changed. Another to stop on this stormy section was Mehta, who hit a nasty mud hole and rolled, wrecking front suspension and steering. Kirkland all but went out after his gearbox jammed in third.

Preston, the last of the Lancia drivers, stopped when sheared studs sent a rear wheel flying off the car. A service car sped to his aid and after what seemed like a terminal delay, an announcement on Lancia’s radio proclaimed to the team that “Junior start again!” Alas, the delay was too great, and even though he continued back to Nairobi, he found that he had been beyond maximum lateness at Seyabet, the control following his mishap. Aaltonen and Weber delighted the Opel team by arriving at Nairobi in first and second places, eight minutes apart, and five minutes clear of Kankkunen’s Toyota. Waldegard was next, 49 more minutes behind, followed by Kirkland, Ambrosino, Salonen, Iwase, Patel and Vittuli. By this time, retirements among the professionals had become such that privateers were penetrating the first ten.

At the start of the third leg there was a kind of subdued confidence in the Opel camp. Their problems so far had been pretty minor, but there was always that nagging feeling that something could go wrong to prevent what seemed like certain victory. Weber had nothing more serious than overheating caused by mud in the radiator after hitting a bank, whilst Aaltonen’s fan belt problems seemed to have been cured. The Finn did have an oil leak in the second leg, but this was cured when broken sump bolts were drilled out, the holes rethreaded and new bolts fitted. At least, it appeared to be cured! Murphy’s Law reared its head, and it seemed that a seal, disturbed by the bolt replacement, was still allowing oil to drip out. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem on its own, but those small oil drips were being blown back and were penetrating the clutch housing, gradually causing a slip which became progressively worse in the third leg.

The contents of six Coca-Cola bottles were injected into the housing to flush out the oil and roughen the lining, and a plug inserted to block the breather hole to keep the Coca-Cola in and the oil out. But by the time the cars got to Nyahururu about 10.30 pm Easter Monday evening, it had become necessary to replace the clutch. Such a job was time consuming, and Weber became a very surprised rally leader, five minutes ahead of the Finn at the next control. Aaltonen’s trouble increased just short of Maralal, when severe transmission vibration made it necessary to replace his gearbox at a cost of more than an hour.

Aaltonen’s deflation was reflected in the team, but at least it still had an Opel in the lead. Just ten minutes behind was another Safari first-timer, Kankkunen in his Toyota, and then there was a gap of more than an hour to Kirkland’s Nissan and Waldegard’s Toyota, sharing third place. After a night rest at Meru Forest Lodge, 350 kms remained to be tackled just after dawn, and very soon into this Kankkunen had the top mount of a rear shock absorber break, extending the gap between himself and the leader. As well as replacement, the mounts were firmly welded to ensure they would last to Nairobi. Then came the second Opel drama. Weber reported by radio that his engine made a tremendous noise and stopped. A spark plug was found to be damaged, and after an attempt at continuing on only three, they eventually had to stop and wait for a service car. All manner of maladies were found, including bent valves and partially seized pistons, and it was subsequently found that a loose bolt from the air intakes had been ingested and had damaged the valve rockers, upsetting the timing and causing pistons to hit valves. There was nothing for it but to change the whole cylinder head, and there at the roadside the car was fitted with the head removed from a chase car.

The disappointment was almost overpowering, but to the credit of the mechanics they got the car going again to take fifth place at the finish. It had almost been an overwhelming Opel victory, but rallies are not over until the car mounts the ramp. and a ridiculously simple thing like a tiny loose bolt had robbed Weber of victory. The Toyota outfit was elated enough at the prospect of a second place for Kankkunen, but to find him suddenly in the lead was almost too amazing to be true. Like watchful hens, service cars shadowed him all the way to the finish, and the elation at at Nairobi had to be seen to be believed. Even Kankkunen himself seemed to be in a disbelieving daze, and he said that he really had to pinch himself several times robe convinced that he wasn’t dreaming.

The winner was backed by Waldegard taking second place, ahead of Mike Kirkland who held off a challenge from Aaltonen even though he rolled after a mud hole sent his Nissan into a bank during that final morning. He and Levitan were about to get out of the car when they were surrounded by a horde of watchers who righted the car within a minute or two. Kirkland simply pressed the starter and they were off again, minus front and rear screens.

Juha Kankkunen and Fred Gallagher have every reason to be proud of their fine win at their first Safari attempt, and we are reminded of a remark some years ago by a very astute Finnish talent spotter called Mikko Helander, who ran the former Teboil team and pushed Vatanen into prominence, “Watch this young man Kankkunen. He will be a champion.”

Salonen marginally extended his We Championship lead by virtue of his seventh place, but he very nearly lost that in closing stages when he reported by radio that either his clutch or a driveshaft making odd noises. He wanted to carry but the team manager insisted that should stop at the next convenient helicopter landing spot so that a mechanic could check the problem.

“I am sure it’s a driveshaft, and I have three more so there is no problem”, he said but stop he did and when the mechanic looked he found that Salonen was right. The broken shaft was made harmless, and the car continued that way to the finish.

Of the rally itself, we have nothing but praise. It is still an event in the old rally tradition, despite necessary bowing to demands of FISA. It remains unique, with the organisers’ claim that it is “the greatest rally in the World”, we can agree. — G.P.

Safari Rally Results

1st : J. Kankkunnen / F. Gallagher (Toyota Celica T GpB) 5hr 18 min

2nd : B. Waldegard / H. Thorszelius (Toyota Celica T GpB) 5hr 32 min

3rd : M. Kirkland / A. Levitan (Nissan 240RS GpB) 6hr 01 min

4th : R. Aaltonen / L. Drews (Opel Manta GpB) 6hr 12 min

5th : E. Weber / G. Wanger (Opel Manta GpB) 7hr 04 min

6th : A. Ambrosino / D. LeSaux (Nissan 240RS GpB) 7hr 58 min

7th : T. Salonen / S. Harjanne (Peugeot 205 T16 GpB) 9hr 09 min

8th : Y. Iwase / S. Vinayak (Nissan 240RS GpB) 12hr 22min

9th : A. Patel / D. Kandola (Nissan 240RS GpB) 14hr 08 min

10th : C. Vittuli / R. Dixon (Subaru 1.8 T 4wd GpA) 15hr 28 min