World Rally Championship: Safari Rally

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In developed Europe, much of a team’s strategic resources may be buried deep in concrete jungles, never actually seen, whilst even their en route service points are very often in secure garages from which prying eyes are kept well away by doors which are slammed shut after the cars enter. But in the wide expanse of Africa, everything is clear for all to see; the fleets of mobile workshops, chase cars, tyre trucks, fuel pick-ups and four-wheel-drive mud cars, the mountains of spare parts, the armies of team personnel, the closely vigilant helicopters and even the high-flying radio-relay aircraft whose twinkling lights can be seen as they orbit in the night sky.

A logistical nightmare is how some would describe the planning necessary for a determined bid at Safari success. Many facets of the operation have to be arranged separately, then integrated with military-like precision into one smooth, co-ordinated campaign. When it is all done properly, it really is a delight to see everything dropping accurately into place, though we still feel that two people and a car are more in keeping with the ideologies of sport, challenge and enjoyment than a factory phalanx whose budget would make a substantial dent in the national debt.

But the coin still keeps its other side, and there are quite a few privateers who continue to tackle the Safari in the old style. Sebastian Tham and Barney Sessions, for instance, drove a well-travelled Range Rover and got their wives and a couple of friends to haul fuel, spares, food and drink around the countryside for them. When something had to be changed — the odd shock absorber for instance — the two drivers simply grabbed the part from their own spares box or from their support car and got down to fitting it themselves whilst being plied with tea and sandwiches by their wives. Their penalty totalled more than 26 hours at the finish, nearly four times that of the winner, but at least they finished, which was their objective.

Such adventuring is anathema to a factory driver. He’s either in a rally to win, with full support from his entire team, or not in it at all. And when he does win, he gets all the kudos. He is the figurehead who reaps the glory on behalf of everyone in his team. No-one doubts his skill, of course. Without it he wouldn’t be a professional driver. But equally essential will have been the skills of his engineers, his mechanics, his service planners, his helicopter pilots and even those of his windscreen-cleaners and coffeemakers. Rallying at the top level is very much a team activity, inadvertently camouflaged as a contest between pairs. Almost like a football match in which all the players except the strikers were hooded and incognito!

Five teams took cars to Kenya for this year’s Safari — Lancia, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and Subaru — whilst among the 57 starters were competitors representing Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, an excellent spread by any standards.

The official Martini-Lancia line-up was a pair of Delta Integrales for Biasion/Siviero and Recalde/Del Buono, but Fiorio drove a third, entered by the Jolly Club, as a competing chase car laden with spares, with mechanic Luchi as co-driver.

Toyota decided to leave its 4WD Celicas at home in Cologne and brought instead the older Supras which have not rallied for some time perhaps figuring that the 1989 Easter would be dry in Kenya. Or perhaps Toyota was more confident of the Supra’s reliability than that of the newer Celica. Drivers were Waldegard/Gallagher and local men Duncan/Munro.

Although Volkswagen stopped rallying some time ago, the team is obviously lured by the challenge of Africa, or stirred by the memory of having come close to winning a few years ago. Two 16-valve Golf GTis were driven by Weber/Feltz and Blomqvist/ Cederberg, the latter driver taking the place of Lars-Erik Torph who was tragically killed during the Monte Carlo Rally.

Another team which just cannot keep away from Kenya is that of Nissan. Although currently dividing its attentions between racing and developing its new four-wheel-drive rally car, two 200SXs were nevertheless brought for Eklund/Whittock and Kirkland/Nixon, whilst a third was entered by Preston/Lyall. A fourth works car, although not entered by the team, was a March Turbo driven by local girls Lynda Morgan and Lynn Marote who struggled through a variety of problems to finish twelfth.

Subaru was again represented by the local importers, under the guidance of Shekhar Mehta, and its two 4WD Turbos were driven by Bourne/Freeth from New Zealand and Heather-Hayes/Levitan, the pair who did so well last year in a Nissan March.

Stohl and Rohringer, the two well-travelled rallying adventurers from Austria, brought an Audi 90 Quattro, whilst, in an effort to score points in his chase for the Group N Championship, the Belgian driver De Mevius drove a Mazda entered by Mazda Italy. The same team entered two other cars, for Italian girls Cambiaghi/Angei and local crew Green/Sherwin. Last year all three cars of this team retired soon after the start, and not one finished this year either, although De Mevius kept going for longer than the others.

Months before the start, sporadic and unseasonal rains in Kenya not only frustrated the farmers but thwarted attempts to carry out routine road repairs normally undertaken after October’s Short Rains. The results were delays in the route survey and a route which was rougher in parts than it might have been. Whenever rain turns dirt roads into mud, heavy lorries churn up the surface and cause very deep ruts. When the rain stops, the sun quickly dries the roads, often within hours, and what is left is more like a series of rock-hard tank traps than a bush thoroughfare. And if the rain returns before the graders get a chance to go in, the whole process starts again.

It certainly was rougher than usual this year, but only in parts, and to say that it was the roughest Safari ever, as one observer did, was to display a rather short memory. The road over the Tot Escarpment, for instance, must rate as one of the wildest strips of rock-strewn goat track in history, whilst the old Embu-Meru road and even the round-the-lake loop at Naivasha have been incredibly rough, rocky, dusty and muddy in their time.

Preparations, as usual, had to cater for wet and dry conditions, for no matter how knowledgeable a local expert, no-one can be sure of the following day’s weather. If accurate predictions are beyond the ability of farmers, whose livelihoods depend on being able to forecast the best time for planting, harvesting and the various processes between, then they are certainly not reliable when made from a bar stool in Nairobi.

However, heavy black clouds were so prominent in the days before the start that no-one seemed prepared to risk betting on a dry Safari. It has been well over a decade since there was a really wet one, and when the day of the start dawned warm and sunny, the disappointment could be sensed everywhere, certainly among the locals. It did actually rain over parts of the route during the event, but usually before the cars got there. The going was as much wet and slippery as it was dry and dusty, but there were no real quagmires or potential bog-ups, and no need to resort to instinct and bushmanship to keep going, honourable attributes of which FISA disapproves and actively stifles.

The first piece of competition was a special stage, a ridiculous formality included to satisfy FISA. To have such a short (3.7 miles) stage timed in seconds when the overall winner’s margin was close on an hour and a half, and the difference between first and thirteenth only a few hours short of a day, was quite superfluous.

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