World Rally Championship: Safari Rally

The magic of Africa

Ten, even twenty years ago, Motor Sport warned that any attempt to meddle with the make-up of the Safari Rally by any form of Europeanisation should be stoutly resisted, lest its character be changed and its toughness diluted. Alas, that resistance has not been strong enough to overcome the nonsensical demands of FISA in its quest to force unjustifiable standardisation upon the world.

Complaints against FISA’s blanket rules come from people concerned with several World Championship rallies which have had to be changed to suite the whims of Paris, but none as vociferous as those from Safari supporters, both within Kenya and elsewhere, who are saddened and infuriated by destructive interference with the toughest, most unpredictable and arguably most popular rally of the world series.

Over the years, its distances have been shortened; its rest periods made longer and more frequent. Furthermore, that old Safari principle of pitting oneself not only against rival competitors but against the vagaries of African nature at its most capricious has gone by the board.

Time was when, if the road was blocked by flood, mud, broken bridges or whatever, it was up to competitors to find their way through or around the blockage. This was no game of chance; on the contrary, it was a test of tenacity and skilful circumnavigation, attributes which nowadays are well into the rank of obsolescence, largely because FISA has frowned on such a rough play, threatening “if you don’t follow our rules, we’ll take away our ball”.

The Safari is the last bastion of natural, open rallying, unfettered by artificialities made necessary by the spread of population, traffic and building development, and by other inroads of civilisation. Its character is unique and it bears no comparison to European rallies. To insist that it conforms to standards inflicted upon Europe is akin to mixing a bottle of fine malt whisky with an entire barrel of mediocre blend.

We are not saying, of course, that all European rallies are indifferent. Each has its character and its place, and one could not imagine a world series without such fine events as the Acropolis or the Thousand Lakes. However, it is sheer stupidity to destroy good ingredients by stirring them up into a single, bland tasteless mixture.

The most idiotic demand of all came this year when FISA insisted that the Safari should include special stages timed in seconds, complete with flying-finish and stop controls, and closed roads.

Can you imagine anything more illogical? FISA must really believe itself to be divine if it imagines that with one wave of a dictatorial hand it can force a Masai gathering or a herd of migrating kongoni to heed a road closure order. And to use seconds to time an event in which a calendar has always been said to be more appropriate than a watch is just as ludicrous, doing no more than create an extra burden for the organisers. FISA is supposed to help and encourage, not hinder and obstruct.

Four special stages were built into this year’s route, totalling just under 33 miles. As it happened, two had to be cancelled due to weather damage but, even if all four had been held, their significance would have amounted to nothing: the overall winner had a lead of nearly thirteen minutes over the second car, whilst well over fourteen hours separated the first and last finishers.

The use of special stages was an imposition which the organisers took in their stride, but they could well have done without it. Hopefully, FISA will now have realised the folly of insisting on such a useless and unnecessary feature and will not interfere next year in an event of which they have no comprehension.

The only team tackling the whole of the World Championship this year is that of Lancia, which originally entered three Delta Integrales for Biasion, Alén and Preston. However, problems during testing and practice convinced Lancia that two cars would be easier to manage than three, and Alén’s entry was withdrawn.

Many hoped that Lancia, having won the first three rounds of 1988, would not make the championship too monotonous by taking the Safari as well, but take it they did, Biasion and Siviero scoring the first ever all Italian win in this event. However, they were decidedly lucky to do so. Not only did they benefit enormously from a spate of rock-laying which delayed their nearest rival Kirkland considerably, but they managed to get away with failing to deposit their time-card at a rest-stop control, an omission which normally results in exclusion.

Lancia used no chase cars as such, but chartered the only two commercially-available turbine helicopters in the country to follow its cars with mechanics, tools and spares. It also had a high-flying fixed-wing aircraft for radio relay, of course, as did each of the other teams.

Toyota brought three Supras for Juha Kankkunen, Bjorn Waldegärd and former Volkswagen driver Kenneth Eriksson. Its new team manager, taking the place of Henry Liddon who was tragically killed last year in the Ivory Coast, was an ex-Audi man Jürgen Bertl, and we can vouch that in the role of airborne controller of operations he did a fine job indeed.

Toyota was the only other team to use a helicopter, but its example, a twin-turbine Squirrel, was air-freighted from Germany, complete with German pilot who seemed surprised and disconcerted by the amount of air traffic during the rally. Kenya is a very air-minded country, of course, and he should have prepared for this.

Two Volkswagen Golf GTis came from the factory for Weber and former Toyota driver Torphe, whilst Opel fielded two FWD Kadett GSIs for Haider (with experienced local man Drews, who speaks German) and Mikkola. The latter had been “borrowed” from Mazda for the occasion, as had his co-driver Harjanne who, after using Finnish pace notes for ten years with Salonen, had to learn Mikkola’s English system for the Safari. He speaks English very well, however, and found the change not at all difficult.

Last year Haider drove a chase car to follow Aaltonen, but this time the roles were reversed, the veteran Finn having at last given up his attempts, since the mid-Sixties, to score a Safari win.

Europe’s Mazda Rally Team sent no works cars, but there were three Group N 323s from Mazda Italy, and their inexplicable retirement by exceeding maximum lateness in the first half of the first leg led some to wonder whether their appearance was simply a means of avoiding Kenya’s huge car-import duty (this is waived for cars which are brought in for the Safari, start the event, and are either re-exported afterwards or kept there to start at least two other rallies).

Nissan, a Safari regular for some twenty years, brought two of its unturbocharged, 3-litre, V6-engined 200SX models for Kirkland and Eklund, whilst a similar car was entered by Marlboro-Afrique for Ivory Coast driver Ambrosino who has several Safaris under his belt, including an entirely clutchless one in a Peugeot 504 Coupé.

Long before the start there seemed to be some strange doubt in the Nissan camp concerning Kirkland’s prowess, and he was given a kind of “driving test” along a competitive section accompanied by a Japanese wielding a stopwatch. Apparently his time was most respectable, borne out by his exemplary performance during the rally itself.

Privately-entered Nissans getting a measure of works support were driven by Shah, Patel and Siller, the latter German driver being partnered by Schuller, the co-driver who did much of the driving to win in 1970 when the really finished in Kampala. Another was the little March Turbo of Jim Heather-Hayes, the Flying Doctor pilot who is a Safari veteran in the roles of driver, mechanic and service planner. He and Anton Levitan delighted the team by finishing tenth in their little car, especially as it beat the Daihatsus!

Subaru, in the name of Fuji Heavy Industries, brought two of their turbocharged 4WD cars for New Zealander Bourne and local man Duncan, whilst a similar car was driven privately by promising African driver Patrick Njiru who finished a creditable eleventh.

The team was quite cosmopolitan, including French, Swiss, American, New Zealander, Kenyan, English and Japanese staff, but the lady doing their airborne radio really did not appear to know a strut from the “long thing between the wheel and the body”! Service instructions were a little convoluted, as you can imagine.

There was a team of five Daihatsu Charades entered by the local distributor, only one of which finished, whilst among the privateers were those indefatigable campaigners from Austria, Rudi Stohl and Reinhard Kaufmann in an Audi Coupé Quattro, Dr and Mrs Jorn Fitter from Germany in a VW Golf GTi, Kenyans Prem and Paura Choda in a Range Rover, the Matthews brothers in another Range Rover, and, the only all-female crew, Lynda Morgan and Lynn Marote in a Toyota.

The route this year began with a southern leg all the way to Mombasa and back, using tracks on both sides of the main north-south tarmac road, through the Taitas, the Chyulus, the sisal and open bush around Rukanga, and the plains north and south of Kajiado.

The second formed a huge loop first skirting the Aberdares and Mount Kenya to Nanyuki, thence, after a night stop, up to Wamba and close to Baragoi before returning past Lake Baringo and crossing the Kerio Valley to another stop, this time by day and evening, in Eldoret.

The leg continued northwards to the southern part of the Cheranganis, then via Kitale, Kapsabet and Bomet to descend the Mau Escarpment into the Rift Valley and to another day stop at Nakuru. The final sections of the leg went up the Mau again, then through the Kedong Valley, behind the Ngong Hills, to Nairobi.

The third leg was a mere quickie, from 5am to 11am on Easter Monday, but one of the roughest nevertheless. Going out via the Kedong, it made two loops through the high ground of the Mau plateau, north of Narok, before returning to Nairobi, once again via the flour-like dust of the Rift Valley near Suswa and the narrow tracks and rocky climbs of the Kedong.

FISA interference was a popular but distasteful conversation piece in the days before the start, and it was certainly noticed that both chief steward and chief scrutineer were FISA-appointed Italians who were pretty green as far as African events were concerned.

Not serving to inspire confidence in the world administrative body was the arrival of a telex from Paris “reminding” the organisers that chase cars were forbidden not only in special stages but in all competitive sections, which formed the bulk of the route. Mike Doughty’s reply was straight to the point; chase cars and helicopters were already forbidden from special stages, but since the remainder of the route was on open public roads, neither the organisers no FISA had any right to override the laws of Kenya by closing them to any category of traffic. The fact that Lancia was using two helicopters instead of chase cars did not go unnoticed, of course.

An early Easter had suggested a dry event, but high winds, storms and torrential rain several weeks before the start made this seem unlikely however, as quickly as they came, they went, and the day of the start dawned bright and sunny.

Nevertheless, the downpours had left much damage in their wake and not only had the two special stages planned for the first leg to be cancelled, but a short deviation had to be incorporated, whilst competitors found the route so considerably changed since they practiced that no firm reliance could be placed on pace notes. To be safe, they had to keep something in reserve.

Kenyan bush tracks become muddy very quickly, but they dry up almost as fast, deep ruts baking hard into unbelievably rough traps for the unwary. In hollows, the mud remained, and although the first leg was dry, the roads were rough and there were mud holes a-plenty to make it all very tricky indeed. Mikkola was one who got well and truly stuck in a mud hole hear Loitokitok, although he and a group of watchers eventually managed to extricate the little Opel.

Waldegärd broke his left rear wheel, disc and caliper in the same area and, after having them replaced at Bura, lost them again in the Taita Hills, this time being helped by heli-borne mechanics. Toyota’s high pressure water jets were most effective at clearing mud from blocked radiators and from undersides where it would bake hard and interfere with moving parts of left alone.

Eklund had a differential oil-leak, Preston had his gearbox jam in fifth and his throttle stick open, Kankkunenn drove some twenty miles with a broken shock-absorber, Haider had a steering bolt work loose, Biasion had to have a drive shaft changed twice whilst Torph caused some frontal damage when he hit a cow.

Duncan broke shock-absorbers due to failure of their cooling system – the pipe into the reservoir was too short to reach the water level – whilst the AVA-entered Sierra Cosworth of Johnny Hellier began a spate of shock-absorber breakages (it was using a new type) which just about consumed its entire stock during the progress of the rally.

At Mombasa, Weber led by two minutes from Preston and Biasion, with Kirkland another minute behind, but shortly after the restart the German broke a driveshaft and found himself level with the two Lancias. Kirkland experienced the first of a series of punctures which plagued the Nissans; 16in Dunlops throughout, whilst Preston had more trouble with his leaking gearbox which was later changed at Nairobi.

Mikkola went off the road during the return trip through the Taitas, punctured his radiator and went no further after his engine cooked. Later, Torph suffered the same fate after having both clutch and gearbox changed at the roadside following bearing seizure. Weber’s similar car later needed a new box and clutch for the same reason, whilst Waldegärd needed two new gearboxes before the leg was over.

Bourne endured failures to gearbox, struts, radiator fan, stub-axle and exhaust. Indeed, the Subarus were plagued by so many breakages throughout the event that it was quite an achievement to get them both to the finish.

Ambrosino rolled his Nissan when his steering broke on the long run from the Chyulus to Kiserian, but he and De Saux promptly started to fit a new steering mechanism which they were carrying in the car and got to Nairobi within their maximum lateness even though they lost nearly two and a half hours. In the same areas, Biasion stopped to have his turbocharger replaced and dropped to sixth place, allowing Kirkland and Eriksson to move ahead as joint leaders and Nairobi.

Torrential rain soaked Nairobi on the Friday evening of the restart, and much of the route north-eastwards to Nanyuki. Narrower tyres were immediately fitted by most people, and the post-restart service work completed in difficult conditions indeed.

Alas, in this sector came an incident which marred an otherwise superb competition. Near Karatina, drunken villagers placed rock and log barriers in the road, and stoned cars as they went by. Many windows were smashed, and crews were lucky to escape serious injury. The most unfortunate was Preston, who ripped out a diff and most of his Lancia’s transmission on a rock, putting him out of the rally immediately.

Kirkland also fell foul of the barricades by bending his steering, rendering his Nissan so difficult to drive that he had to stop at the end of the section to have it replaced. He lost all of 28 minutes, and one can imagine his feelings later when he discovered that a misprint in competitors’ time-cards gave an unexpected extra hour for the next section, providing such a chunk of extra service time that if he had the repair just after the Kiamachimbi control rather than before it, he would have avoided that 28-minute penalty, and a quick glance at the final results will reveal what that would have meant.

That one hour error caused some confusion, for when it was realised that cars were lining up at the Nanyuki approach control waiting for their erroneously-revised times to come up, service crews began to head out of the town centre, making for the scene of the hold-up where they could make good use of the extra time.

But the officials at the control would have none of it, declaring that service crews must not drive against rally traffic. The fact that rally traffic was at a standstill made no difference, and there were plenty of harsh words (especially as one Nissan crew was already sited before the control) drawing undeserved remarks concerning favouritism. A Lancia man was heard to say, “This is Kenya Mafia working,” but without justification.

Soon after dawn, when the peaks of Mount Kenya showed up in magnificent silhouette, and an hour later than planned, in order to preserve FISA’s precious minimum rest Kankunnen led the 22 survivors northwards with a 16-minute advantage over Kirkland. Many had cracked or smashed windows after running the gauntlet near Karatina, but were unable to find replacement at Nanyuki.

Some 20 miles out of the town Biasion ran full tilt into a zebra, smashing lights and causing a bit of body damage which interrupted airflow to the radiator and caused overheating. The airflow was restored at the next service point, but there was no point in repairing the lights until he got to Eldoret that afternoon.

The first special stage to be run was up the wide, curving road which had been constructed up the escarpment to Nyaru for truck traffic serving the fluorspar mine in the Kerio Valley below. Biasion was fastest here, but Kankkunen blew his turbocharger and had to stop to close a valve to prevent oil loss and further damage during his slow climb. The turbocharger was replaced at Nyaru, whilst team-mate Waldegard’s cylinder-head bolts were tightened as it was though that water loss and overheating were due to a leaking gasket.

Meanwhile, Kirkland’s punctures continued, whilst Weber had cruel luck when, on the approach to Eldoret, something broke on a front suspension unit and he lost a wheel. Earlier, he had sideswiped a Lancia service vehicle on the way westward from Lake Baringo, and it was felt that the breakage was due to some damage caused by this incident. Mechanics were despatched to Weber’s aid, but after the repair was complete he was just over his maximum lateness at Eldoret.

Bourne was continuing to have trouble with his Subaru, so many bolts loosening that at one time the engine was held in place only by the sumpguard. Duncan had one of his two electrical fans stop working, and since they are integral with the radiator housing the whole unit had to be changed. Imagine the chagrin when the new radiator was found to be leaking. There was no time to change it again, so that job was left until after midnight departure from Eldoret.

Among those who had done the whole of the day’s distance with a smashed screen was Heather-Hayes, and even at Eldoret there was no laminated screen available for a Nissan Turbo. However, on the signing of an indemnity by the driver, the FISA scrutineer agreed that a toughened screen could be fitted, provided that a limited screen (or no screen at all, of course) was in place when the car arrived at the finish.

That night Kankkunen broke a driveshaft and hub and lost well over an hour, whilst the ladies Lynda Morgan and Lynn Marote were sadly put out by hitting a rock which broke their suspension. Eriksson changed another turbocharger, Duncan had his brake master-cylinder replaced and Heather-Hayes stopped to investigate a turbocharger problem only to find a blocked fuel-filter which he promptly changed.

At the Nakuru halt, Njiru’s broken windscreen was replaced in the closed park, whilst Biasion and Siviero made a silly blunder by not handing in their time-card after it was stamped.

They were whisked away by car to their hotel, still in possession of the card, and it was only by the good offices of the controller, Lord Delamere, and a sporting gesture by Mike Kirkland, that they avoided exclusion. No-one seemed to know where the Lancia crew was staying, but Kirkland, remembering where Preston had stayed during practice, made a suggestion which enabled an official to be despatched by car to retrieve the card. He may not know it, of course, but that’s a very definite beer that the Lancia driver owes both the Mombasa man and the controller!

There were more punctures during the afternoon run to Nairobi, whilst at the start of the Kedong section, just after the run off the tarmac Narok road, dust clouds swirled in the air as cars churned up the fine-ground powder surface. Several crews checked in early to avoid dust, with the inevitable result that a pair of cars left on the same minute. Eklund went in early, but in the ensuring start alongside Waldegärd, the Toyota drivers was first into the first corner.

At Nairobi that Sunday evening, Biasion led by just under ten minutes from Kirkland –not a great deal by Safari standards, especially as Kirkland had been driving really well, sometimes beating and frequently equalling the Italian’s times. A puncture in the wrong place could easily turn the tables, although Kirkland has had far more of those than did Biasion.

As dawn approached on that last morning. The cars having begun to leave Nairobi at 5am, the two Lancia and one Toyota helicopters took off almost in formation from their night resting place at the lake Naivasha Hotel and headed for the area of Narok and Suswa. Any problem at this late stage would need immediate attention, and Lancia was playing extra safe by sending one helicopter ahead, and having one right behind him, ready to land at the touch of a microphone button.

As it happened, Biasion did have a strut problem, but so did Kirkland who completed the whole of a difficult, rough 50-miler into Nailongilok with a broken shock-absorber. They both lost ten minutes. Kirkland avoided further delay when a defunct alternator and a flat battery were put right by reconnecting a loose wire behind the alternator and fitting a new battery brought at a sprint to the car by a very agile Japanese mechanic.

After a very troublesome rally, it was a great disappointment indeed for Hellier and the AVA team to lose their tenth place when their Sierra Cosworth holed its sump comprehensively and stopped at Suswa.

Bourne and Duncan continued to have problems almost to the end, the former breaking yet another ball-joint and the latter another shock-absorber when he hit a hole as he moved out to pass a puncture-slowed Waldergard. But by that time positions were pretty well settled.

The Lancia festivities were noisy and enthusiastic to say the least, for they had plenty to celebrate; an Italian crew in an Italian car had won the Safari for the first time; two Italians led the World Championship; and Lancia was way ahead in the makes category, having won all four rounds so far. Little now stands in the way of another Lancia championship victory, although the drivers’ category will doubtless be affected by which men get to partake in which events.

But at the finish of the Safari it is not really the world series which occupies thoughts. This is a great sporting even which needs no championship to prop it up. It will stand on its own feet no matter what happens around it, and its worldwide popularity is guaranteed – despite the meddling fingers of FISA.

Its atmosphere is unique, and any rally enthusiast who has never witnessed the Safari has missed a great experience. It is a thrill beyond comparison to spot plumes of distant dust wafting up from the vast floor of the Great Rift Valley; to see excited bush-dwellers cheering the cars as enthusiastically as any European crowd; to witness dawn bringing into view the snow-cap of Kilimanjaro; to watch mechanics sweating in the heat one minute, and wallowing in mud the next; to hear the mysterious noises of the African night interrupted by the remote crackle of a powerful engine; even to be soaked in the open during a violent tropical storm, sensing the delight of the animals at the coming of the Rains and seeing the landscape turn almost overnight from burnt brown to lush green.

This is all part of the magic of Africa, a background which provides a perfect setting for what the organisers justifiably claim to be “The World’s Greatest Rally”. GP