Happy Hunting Ground

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It has been almost a decade and a half since the last really wet Safari Rally, and in that time the event has become steadily more Europeanised as the blanket rules of FISA have shortened the distance, increased the rest periods, introduced special stages timed in seconds etc. But in 1990 the Long Rains struck again before and during the Easter weekend, and the result was a Safari which would have satisfied any exponent of driving in African mud. Conditions were so difficult that, having seen them at first hand, and witnessed the pleasure and satisfaction of competitors when they come face to face with Africa at its most turbulent, and a kind of rallying which cannot be found in Europe, F1SA officials should now be able to appreciate that the Safari is unique and cannot be made to conform to worldwide standards lest it lose its challenge and its attraction.

A literally all-weather route is impossible for Kenya, for even tarmac roads can become blocked and Nairobi itself can become flooded to a standstill when a bad storm strikes, as happened just a few days before the rally this year. The Long Rains usually begin towards the end of March, and it used to be the case that reasonably safe roads were chosen for a late Easter and rather more adventurous ones when Easter came early. But nowadays the rains have lost their regular patterns and can come at any time, causing dry drifts to become torrents, bridges to be washed away and even the best of murram roads to become ribbons of mud.

This year there has been rain since January; not continuous, of course, but frequently enough to keep vegetation strong and high, and to prevent normal road maintenance, resulting in their being much rougher than usual. In the weeks before the event, crews returning from route recces had many tales of getting stuck in mud, waiting for rivers to go down and failing to climb slippery hills. When the rain stopped and the sun dried the roads, the ruts, potholes and washaways were baked so hard that the roads were far rougher than most of the overseas visitors had ever seen before.

As if they had been able to predict the wet opening months of the year, the organisers had cut out the northerly sections beyond Nanyuki to Wamba, those through the open bush and sisal plantations around Rukanga in the south, and those west of Narok on the edge of the Masai Mara, all of which would have been very doubtful goers indeed during, or even after, heavy rain.

But this is not to say that the route was a dawdle. Bush tracks, mountain roads and escarpment crossings are plentiful in Kenya, and there is always sufficient choice to lay in a route difficult enough to tax even the most tenacious of endurance rally exponents. However the rain before the event persisted for so long that the organisers had to make several contingency plans, including the official “alternative routes” which are never found in Europe.

It so happened that only one such alternative had to be used, although there were several occasions when the organisers were faced with tricky dilemmas when cars got stuck and threatened to cause blockages which might stop the entire rally. There must have been several debates at rally headquarters concerning such incidents, but each time the decision was to do no more than increase maximum permitted lateness and to leave it to competitors to find their way through. Find their way through they did, and in this respect the event smacked of the Safaris of old, when bushmanship counted for a great deal, although this was probably not the opinion of those twenty-odd crews who were put out of the event on the first day by cars which got stuck in mud and blocked the road for those who followed.

The original concept of the Safari, that of getting through no matter what obstacles are encountered, remains one which cannot be bettered, but one factor has led inevitably to changes year by year, and will probably continue to do so, and that is the manufacturers’ team hunger for victory and the ever-increasing budgets they are prepared to allocate. Chartered 747s full of spares and equipment, fleets of service vehicles, armies of personnel and even an attendant helicopter per car rather than one shared by a whole team are not at all unusual nowadays. Indeed, professional crews are so cossetted that they need hardly lift a finger to work on their cars and the only crews who need also to be fettlers in Safari tradition are privateers unable to afford such luxuries.

The main contestants this year were Lancia, Toyota and Subaru, the latter having six cars in two teams of three and the others having three cars each. Drivers were Biasion, Fiorio and Kankkunnen (Lancia), Waldegard, Ericsson and Sainz (Toyota) and Alen, Kirkland, Bourne, Duncan, Heather-Hayes and Njiru (Subaru). The Subarus were not the 6-speed cars being built by Prodrive in England, but less powerful 5-speed cars shipped from Japan. Others included a Nissan driven by Preston, a Mitsubishi driven by Shinozuka and an Audi driven by Stohl.

Based as usual at Nairobi, the route was divided into five parts by four night stops, one at Nairobi, two at Eldoret and one at Nakuru. During the first part, to the Taita Hills and back, it became apparent that the Toyotas were prone to failure of their turbocharger intercooler water pumps. Waldegard was the first to suffer, but so many pumps were used up on the first two days that the team had to contact Cologne to have an extra supply brought out to Kenya by a courier from the team’s base. But despite this problem, Waldegard led after the first day.

One section had to be cut out in favour of an alternative due to rain on Kilimanjaro and the possibility of rivers rising in the plains below, but when a mud hole became impassable in the Taita Hills after some twenty-odd cars had passed, such a decision was impossible and maximum lateness was increased by three hours. However, the field was cut drastically, and of the 58 cars which started on the Thursday morning, only 25 returned that evening. The Subarus of Alen, Duncan and Bourne blew their engines, the latter’s after he hit a rock.

Preston’s Nissan stopped on the second day after suspension and steering breakages, whilst Kirkland’s Subaru seemed to be following those of his teammates. His turbocharger was changed at the end of the day, but there was no improvement and he did not restart the next morning. Waldegard held a six minute lead after the second day, “But six minutes is nothing; the same as six seconds in Europe,” he exclaimed.

On the third day another mud hole threatened to stop the rally but, left to fend for themselves, the competitors and their mud crews managed to get through after losing much time. Later, Fiorio’s engine blew due to loss of oil, whilst Waldegard extended his lead to one hour. However, this was reduced firstly to 39 minutes by a long service stop, and then to just six minutes again by breaking a drive shaft on a very slippery, uphill section.

Biasion inched ahead for a few sections, but Waldegard soon regained the lead and extended it to 18 minutes. The next day, Biasion stopped due to overheating, was attended by heli-borne mechanics, but soon went out when a con-rod broke.

A minor fire started in Heather-Hayes’ engine compartment when oil escaping from a split pipe connecting the cylinder head to the turbocharger split. He soon put this out, but had to wait until a new pipe was dropped to him from the Subaru aircraft (they had no helicopters) before he was able to get the car into good shape again.

On the final day more very sticky mud holes appeared but, whilst Kankkunen could make no impression on Waldegard, neither could the other Celica drivers shake the Finn from his comfortable second place. The ten finishers suggested to some that the event had not been as tough as those of the past when mud and flood reduced the finishers to just seven, but in those days servicing was on a much smaller scale and there were no helicopters.

For well over a decade people have been praying for another wet Safari. When it became obvious that this is what there would be this year, many said that it would be a lottery, not a competition of skill, but when it was over, there was no doubt that everyone had enjoyed it immensely. It is a magnificent rally in the old style, providing unique contrast with those of Europe, and there can be no doubt that it heads the list of favourites of everyone who has taken part in it. GP