Rally Review - Marlboro Safari Rally, May 1986

Convention Conquers Complexity

The complexities of today’s ultra-fast rally Car, its power and performance completely controlled by printed circuits, delicate microchips and other products of electronic miniaturisation, may be fine for the short, sterile dashes which make up the rallies of Europe, but take them into the vastness of Africa, where the sport can still survive the stifling standardisation policies of Paris politicians, and the story is altogether different.

Four hundred horsepower packed into the back of a two-seater hardly bigger than a Mini is not something which suggests fragility, but although the beefier parts are tough enough, the intricate “management’ systems, as they are called, can be so complicated that the risk of failure becomes very high. What is more, tracing a fault can be a long job, and the last thing you want is a car which not only refuses to move but resists attempts to trace the fault.

Such cars are best suited to sprint stages of the European type, with frequent opportunities for mechanics to tend their charges. They have never really demonstrated reliability on long, arduous rallies, in which the going can be on the rough side and when they can be given comparatively infrequent sessions of attention by their fettlers.

No other rally has made this as abundantly clear as the Safari, and when the three cornered fight between Peugeot, Lancia and Toyota finished in Nairobi on the Thursday morning after Easter, the uncomplicated Toyotas emerged victorious for the third year in succession. Clearly, if you want to send your cars foraging for laurels in tough country where they can be a long way from the supporting attentions of mechanics, you have to keep them as simple and as easy to repair as possible no matter how many chase cars you may have on the road nor how many helicopters aloft.

Both the Lancias and the Peugeots were plagued by a variety of troubles, some serious, some trivial, but all of them time-consuming, whereas the Toyotas, with fewer complexities to go wrong, ran reliably to finish first, second and fourth, although even they suffered rear axle failures which threatened to put them out.

Winners, in one of the team s three Celica Turbos, were Bjorn Waldegard and Fred Gallagher, the former scoring his third Safari victory and the latter his second. Behind came younger team-mates Lars-Eric Torph and Bo Thorszelius. followed by Markku Alen and Illkka Kivimaki in a Lancia Rally and the third Toyota of Erwin Weber and Gunter Wanger who were only prevented from winning last year by an engine stoppage in their Opel during the closing hours of the rally. The best placed Peugeot was fifth, driven by Juha Kankkunen, last year’s winner, and Juha Piironen, whilst in sixth and seventh places were two GpA Subaru RX Turbos driven by Mike Kirkland Robin Nixon and Frank Tundo/ Quentin Thomson, the latter crew just one minute ahead of Shekhar Mehta and Rob Combes in their Peugeot.

16 years ago, when the International Rally Championship for Makes was set up by the CSI, who presumably considered the sport insufficiently adult to deserve a “World” title, what was then the East African Safari Rally was included in the new seven-event series without any contact whatsoever between the CSI and the organisers. There was not even the politeness of a “Do you mind?”, and we well remember being amazed by his surprised reaction when we asked Eric Cecil, then organising chairman, what he thought of the rally’s new status.

In those days the rally’s adventure content was at its highest; stamina and bushmanship were as vital for success as driving skill, and it was just bad luck if you came across a flash flood which barred your progress, or the road blocked by two or three cars trapped in a mud hole. There were no clear cut procedures for scrubbing the section and substituting an alternative; you simply had to find your own way around the obstacle. Furthermore, rest stops were not as abundant as they are nowadays, and competitors often found that when they finished one leg, their lateness was so great that they only had an hour before starting the next.

The rally has been considerably diluted since those days. Rest periods are longer and more frequent, roads likely to be troublesome during rain are avoided, and alternative routes are published in advance, ready to be used if the weather gets tricky.

But these “reforms” have not been enough to satisfy FISA, which seems to think that no-one can run a successful rally without detailed instructions from Paris. This magazine has constantly warned against allowing too much meddling with the makeup of the Safari, and this year the organisers gave in to yet more Europeanisation when, to comply with another FISA dictum, the overall distance was cut from 5.000 kilometres to 4,000.

We can understand that it may be necessary in traffic ridden Europe to minimise the time during which the cavalcade of a rally is on the move, but in Kenya this is not at all necessary, and one can only assume that this blanket rule was instituted for no more reason than to assert authority. Of course, it is also likely that certain manufacturers, anxious that their cars are not subjected torus much hard work in one event, have lobbied FISA to reduce the distances of African rallies. We were disappointed — and many others were, too — when the organisers agreed to this route shortening.

The Safari seems to be a thorn in FISA’s side, and we get the impression that they would like to drop it from the World Championship altogether but are reluctant to do so because of its immense popularity. It is run in a country which does not pay dutiful homage to Concord Square and whose languages do not include French, and those alone are enough to put it in the renegade class.

Since its beginning, the Safari has always been held over a holiday, when officials, competitors and their helpers have no problems getting time off from work, and commercial road traffic is minimal. But Easter is a holiday which moves each year, and FISA contends that this disrupts the championship as a whole. This year they insisted that at least 21 days should separate rounds of the series, which meant that the Safari had to be delayed by two days — not enough to make any difference to the preparation schedules of competing teams, but certainly enough to create manpower problems for the organisers, and to move the rally into a period when working traffic could be expected, both situations cutting across FISA’s claim to be concerned with safety.

Originally a three day postponement had been required, but this was reduced to two when manufacturers (well, at least one!) complained that they were having trouble recruiting local staff to crew mud cars, petrol wagons and the like.

So, instead of starting on a Thursday and finishing on Easter Monday, the rally ran from the Saturday of the Easter weekend to the Wednesday morning. It could have been brought easily to a close on the Tuesday, but the organisers introduced long rest stops to extend it, partly to avoid daytime traffic but mainly, we suspect, to satisfy the sponsors.

Next year we trust that the organisers will have no truck with unwarranted interference from FISA and will run the rally as it is best for Kenya, not Paris.

Sixty-nine entries in a country whose motor trade is somewhat depressed by high import duties, and which presents overseas competitors with pretty high travel and competing costs, isn’t bad at all, and this year the leading runners included five factory teams.

Peugeot brought two 4-w-d 205 T16s for Kankkunen and Mehta, the latter having been engaged, in the absence of Nissan, both to compete and to undertake a long, pre-rally test programme which was curtailed, as it turned out, when the test car caught fire and was gutted. Lancia. on the other hand, decided against bringing its 4-w-d Delta which has scored some fine successes in Europe, and instead brought three of its r-w-d Rally models, with supercharged rear engines, For Alen Kivirnaki, Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and local men Vic Preston Jnr/ John Lyall, the latter crew also carrying out pre-event testing on national events. Two other Lances of the same type were driven privately by Greg Criticos/Marzio Kravos and John Hellier/ Dave Williamson. Initially the privateers looked after themselves, but after Biasion and Preston retired, they gained the benefit of full factory support.

The Toyota team, from Cologne, and as cosmopolitan as it has always been, brought three r-w-d Celicas as part of a programme which includes only those rallies in which the car can be competitive against 4-w-d cars of considerably better power weight ratio. With no World Championship rally close by to divide their attentions, the team was able to concentrate on the Safari, and they did so with their usual impeccable attention to detail, although there was a flurry at one point when extra rear axles had to be flown in from Europe halfway through the rally.

This was not the first appearance in the Safari for Subaru, but in the past they have disguised their appearances behind a motor club, much as Porsche used to hide behind Swiss number plates and Fiat behind their drivers’ names or the Jolly Club. This time the Japanese team was out in the open, and driving their three Group A 4-w-d RX Turbos were Mike Kirkland/ Robin Nixon, Frank Tundo/ Quentin Thomson and, from New Zealand, Peter Bourne/ Mike Fletcher.

Two Volkswagen Golf GTis were making their first trip to the Safari as factory entries, and the Group A cars were driven by Kenneth Eriksson/ Peter Diekmann and Franz Wittmann/ Matthias Feltz. Rudi Stohl/ Reinhardt Kaufmann brought an Audi 80 Quattro from Austria. whilst further down the list were veterans Wolfgang Siller/ Hans Schuller (the latter a former Safari winner) in a Nissan 240 RS. Paul-Marc Meylan also brought a 240 AS from Switzerland, but their progress was short-lived. Tom Ryan and Chris Bates were in a Toyota Corolla, and Prem and Paura Choda in a Datsun. In the absence of Rauno Aaltonen, Lofty Drews teamed up with Jayant Shah in a Nissan 240 RS.

Obliged to keep the distance down, the organisers’ first cuts were in the first leg, to the South, where really first class sections can unfortunately only be linked by the ascot the Nairobi-Mombasa tarmac road. Mombasa was cut out altogether, much to the chagrin of enthusiasts there, and the tough bits on that leg confined to a loop through Machakos, another through the Chyulu Hills to Loitokitok, the tortuous roads of the Taita Hills and a loop through the open bush and sisal of Rukanga before a return to Nairobi via the Chyulu Hills again and Kajiado.

This whole 800 mile leg could have been contained within the first day and evening, but there was a four hour stop at Buffalo Lodge, close to the Tanzanian border and below the cloud-covered slopes of Kilimanjaro, then another from 11 pm to 5 am at Mtito Andrei, which seemed a bit superfluous when there was only just over three hours of running time left to get back to Nairobi. The reason was obviously a wish to finish the leg in daylight rather than in the middle of the night, but we feel sure that everyone concerned would have preferred to keep going and enjoy all the rest in one lump at the end of the leg, no matter what time it was.

The Chyulu Hills are well populated with animals who enjoy the lush grazing. The grass there grows very quickly indeed, even on the murram and earth roads, and during practice people were rather concerned that they could not see where they were going. There were even a few complaints, which leads us to wonder what some people expect of travel through the African bush! However, the organisers were able to mobilise a grader, although there was only time for it to clear away those parts where the grass was longest.

Fast progress through the ungraded portions meant that radiators were in danger of being blocked, although this only seemed to affect the Lancias. All of them had to stop regularly so that grass could be cleared from their grilles, and one of their helicopters spent much time hopping from place to place for this purpose. Preston, for instance, stopped no less than six times so that the helicopter crew could clean his grille. Other cars were running hot too, but this was more due to the hot weather than the grass. The rain which threatened some 10 days before the start didn’t come to much, and the four-wheel-drive teams were bemoaning its absence as much as the farmers were.

The result, on that dry, windless Saturday was a succession of dust clouds stretching down through the Chyulus and along the edge of Tsavo West to Taveta. Overtaking was decidedly tricky, and several reported being inadvertently held up by slower cars.

At Buffalo Lodge Waldegard was leading by one minute from Kankkunen, with Mehta two more minutes behind, Torph another one and Weber another. But there were signs of rain ahead, and mud cars were being sent to all the tricky spots to report conditions and to wait, if considered necessary, with tow-ropes at the ready.

In the Taita Hills it started, and one drift in particular rose to torrent proportions in minutes, cutting the rally in two after 18 cars had passed. However, the water went down as quickly as it had risen, and the delay to those stuck on the wrong side of the drift was not too serious. However, on the same section Alen had suffered battery failure and was running without lights or wiper, hanging on grimly to the tail-lights of a chase car in front of him with no more forward illumination than that provided by a torch held through the window. The struggle proved to be too much, and the Lancia slid off on to its side trapping Alen’s hand as it came to rest.

Fortunately there were people about to right the car, but although there was no serious damage to Alen’s hand, it was very painful indeed and was strapped up for the remainder of the rally. Team manager Florio was not slow to realise that although he could do nothing about the considerable delay suffered by his number one driver, the stoppage due to the flood might be another matter. We gather he did have private discussions with officials about the possibility of cancelling that section, but that is as far as it went. There were no protests and no cancellations.

Mehta had needed a broken driveshatt replaced, Preston a front strut, whilst Kankkunen had overshot the tricky right turn into the bush from the tarmac road at Bachuma, and after leaving his service point he shot off down the road towards Mombasa. By the time they realised their mistake and found the slot, Waldegard had gone in before them and had taken over the dust-free position of leading car on the road. Another to take a wrong slot later was Torph, who took a wrong road through a series of junctions in the Cyulus. Retracing their five mile error was difficult through their own dust, and they reckoned they lost nine minutes.

The dust had also caused Weber to drive into the back of Mehta. The Toyota had been very close indeed behind the Peugeot, and when Mehta braked early for a bend, Weber hit him, only damaging the lights of the Toyota but puncturing the oil cooler of the Peugeot and damaging its exhaust.

At the end of the first leg, Waldegard’s lead over Kankkunen was four minutes, and they were followed by Biasion, Weber, Mehta, Torph and Kirkland.

The stop in Nairobi was from 8.20 am to 4 pm, after which the second leg went northwards past Naivasha and Mau Narok to Molo, Eldama Ravine and Nyahururu before looping up through Rumuruti, almost to Maralal, and returning via Nanyuki and looping around Sagana to Thika and Nairobi. There was no loop around Mount Kenya this year. The one stop during this leg was at Nyahururu’s Thompson’s Falls Lodge, from 9.41 pm to 3.30 am.

On the way out of Nairobi Mehta stopped in a cloud of steam after his radiator burst. It was fixed, but at a cost of 25 minutes on what should have been an easy section. After Emening, and heading across the great Rift Valley to the Mau Escarpment, Kankkunen broke a front strut, and the team’s helicopter wasted no time delivering a new one to the spot, along with mechanics. But the helicopter could not wait until the job was done, as darkness was fast approaching, so the two Finns finished the job themselves.

After the delays suffered by the Peugeots of Mehta and Kankkunen, the latter losing even more time when the electronic ignition packed up, the Toyotas moved into a commanding position, and this was reinforced when the Lancias began having trouble. First Biasion lost his alternator belt which took with it the belt driving the super-charger. With little more than idling speed available, Biasion lost something like 25 minutes before things could be put right. Not long after, Preston rolled, and although they managed to push the car back on to its wheels it was damaged too badly to continue.

At Thompson’s Falls Lodge, Waldegard led by 25 minutes from Weber, with Torph another three minutes behind. Next was Kankkunen, another 20 minutes down, so Toyota seemed to be in complete charge of the event, although team-manager Andersson was not at all on edge as he quaffed coffee during the rest stop and reminisced about the early ‘seventies when the Toyota team first appeared in Europe.

Waldegard chose to stop after the restart to have a turbocharger waste gate bracket fixed properly, and this meant that he lost his lead position on the road. It was ironic and frustrating that the dust ahead of him was being caused by his team-mates, but he got ahead of Torph when he stopped to change a wheel after a puncture, and then Weber when he stopped for fuel and tyres which Waldegard didn’t need.

Biasion’s delay was compounded when his alternator belt came off again this time causing such severe overheating that gasket failure was thought likely. An injected sealant was tried, but without success, and it wasn’t long before the car was being towed — very quickly, if we may say so, — down the main road to Nairobi.

Nearing Saba Saba after a loop off the main road, Alen was confronted by two children who dashed across the road in front of him. He swerved to avoid them, but one turned back and he was unable to avoid her. He immediately called one of the team’s helicopters (they had two, plus a fixed-wing radio relay aircraft) which took the girl to hospital. Although it was not his fault, Alen was clearly upset by this, and when the rally was over he instructed that his prize money should be used to set up a trust fund for the girl’s education. She was not seriously injured.

Kankkunen had been off the road on the way down from Thompson ‘s Falls, hitting a wall in the dust of another car, breaking a driveshaft, brake disc and a wishbone bolt. The repairs took time, and he lost fourth place to Alen. Mehta, too, lost time, firstly when he couldn’t start his engine after stopping to change a wheel and secondly when his clutch had to be changed at the Peugeot garage in Nairobi.

It was still Toyota one-two-three, followed by Alen, Kankkunen, Kirkland, Mehta, Eriksson, Criticos and Tundo.

There was a day.long rest after the second leg, and the third didn’t start until midnight to make the trip into Western Kenya via Molo, Kisumu, Kakemega, Kapenguria and the Cherangani Hills to Eldoret. Here there was an 18 hr stop before the return to Nairobi and on the Wednesday morning via Kabarnet, Emening and Ol Kalou.

Right at the start of this leg Waldegard very nearly came to grief in the Rift Valley when his right rear hub broke, but a chase car was quickly there to help him on his way with a delay of about half an hour, although the job wasn’t actually completed with lock wire and bolt-torqueing until the next proper service point.

The entire rear axle was switched on Waldegard’s car, the chase car having to sit there in the bush until could be made mobile again later. It did seem that rear axles were troublesome on the Toyotas, and to play safe the team had extra ones flown out from Europe. It was thought that the broken hub had been caused by a seal bursting after a pressure build-up inside the axle. In any event, no chances were being taken, and when an axle was removed from a car, it was stripped, checked and rebuilt ready for use again if needed.

It was a good thing that this was done, for when the rally got to Eldoret, a helicopter brought in the old axle from Waldegard’s car, ready to be refitted.

Meanwhile, Weber had also stopped and was in need of a new axle. The section was between two tarmac roads, and when the helicopter went in to a point described to its crew as so many kilometres from the tarmac, it made for the wrong end. Eventually, Toyota’s single-engined fixed-wing aircraft arrived and circled to mark the spot for the helicopter. All this took well over an hour, and Weber’s second place was gone.

Waldegard had meanwhile been having a struggle in the dust having lost his lead position on the road (but not in classification), and that third leg proved to be very difficult and traumatic for the team.

In the closing stages Alen made a stirring bid, being egged on by shouts of “attack” over his radio. But he was already into third place ahead of Weber, so his spurt achieved nothing. Weber almost ended his rally when he rammed a car which braked suddenly in front of him, but despite a radiator leak he got to the finish holding his fourth place. Toyota were delighted with the result, and so were the Lancia people, for they had edged ahead of Peugeot in the World Championship.

Finally we must emphasise yet again the convictions of countless supporters that the Safari organisers should resist attempts by FISA to dilute and Europeanise this giant among rallies. And to FISA itself all we will say is “Hands off the Safari” — G.P.