Rally Review -- Safari Rally, May 1991

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The Right One

It must be all of twenty years since we first warned against the Europeanisation of that unrivalled event in the world rallying calendar, the East African Safari Rally, as it was then called. It was refreshingly different from all other rallies and was run in a way which used the vast expanse of East Africa’s countryside to its fullest advantage. Its delight lay not only in the incomparable terrain over which it passed, but in its distinctive style, its unique grandeur, its adventure element, and even its plain, straightforward simplicity, all features which set it apart from other world class rallies.

The toughness of the Safari was beyond question. Nothing in Europe could match it for subjecting cars to the most severe punishment, and their crews to a stringent test of their skills, their stamina, their endurance and their tenacity. Without a generous endowment of all these qualities, they had little hope of finishing.

But rallying has degenerated into a nine-to-five technology race. We say degenerated because honest-to-goodness rallymanship seems to have gone out of the window; blown away by the effects of huge technological advances, of enormous budget increases by works teams and of the piecemeal partitioning of events into dismantled fragments.

In its determined bid to change the face of rallying, and reduce World Championship events to faceless sterotypes of the Paris pattern, FISA has so meddled with the make-up of the Safari that it bears little resemblance to its forerunners. True, it remains based at Nairobi and still passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, but it has been so stretched and diluted that rest stops now far outweigh actual driving time. Stamina, hitherto a fundamental quality for a rally competitor, whether driver or navigator, has lost its importance, because human batteries can now be fully recharged in comfortable beds rather than in short doses on reclining seats whilst on the move.

The inclusion of long rest stops is not something which was introduced suddenly by the Safari this year. It has been done gradually over several years. Indeed, in 1990 the breaks were plentiful enough, far more being allowed than actual running time. Nevertheless, it was the subject of a FISA complaint that competitors were not allowed sufficient rest.

The result of that complaint was a restructuring of the rally timetable so that it began not on the traditional Thursday before Easter, but on the Wednesday. The finish remained on Easter Monday morning.

The extra day added a little in the way of competitive distance, but most of it went to extend the rest stops even more than they were. In the six days spanned by the rally this year, there were no less than five long rest stops of more than twelve hours each and one short one of four hours; enough to make Coronation Safari stalwarts burst into laughter, or shed a few tears!

In its early days, the whole essence of the Safari was to press on; to make progress; to find a way around unexpected obstacles such as floods, mud holes, washaways and broken bridges; to fight off the onset of fatigue and to snatch as much sleep as possible in the car whilst on the move. Making a little detour to avoid an obstruction nowadays brings howls of protest for failing to adhere to the correct route, whilst the very idea of driving whilst feeling tired is quite unthinkable.

In the days when rest periods were not as plentiful, and when it was really up to crews themselves to find their way around unexpected obstacles, privateers were not so far removed from those with works support. Stamina and bushmanship were not qualities confined only to factory drivers, and amateurs were still in with an outside chance. However, the gradual arrival of massive ground and air support for works teams opened up a wide gap between privateers and professionals, although what an amateur lacked in team backing he often partly made up in tenacity. Alas, even that advantage has been removed by the extra rest now scheduled.

This year’s 2800-mile route, after beginning with a two-minute special stage around the infield of Nairobi’s Ngong Road Racecourse, first ran from Nairobi down to Mombasa and back, with dirt road sections here and there on each side of the main tarmac road. That made up the first two legs of the event.

Next came legs to the North-West as far as Kapenguria, though not as far westward as the highly populated areas to the North of Kisumu. The rest stops here were at Nakuru and Eldoret. From Eldoret, the route made a long loop north-eastwards via a short morning stop at Maralal, where rows of tents, toilets and “oil-drum” showers had been put up to cater for the overspill from the small lodge.

After Maralal, the route should have taken the Loiyengalani road northwards almost as far as Barsaloi before turning southwards to Wamba, Ngobit and the final rest stop at the Aberdare Country Club near Nyeri. However, a Lancia mud car reported that a river crossing near Barsaloi was in flood and the road impassable.

Having lost direct contact with their own route-opening crew due to a radio failure, the organisers felt obliged to cancel the competitive sections from Maralal to Larregei and Wamba and substitute a shorter, non-competitive section. This gave the opportunity for additional service, and certainly Lancia was relieved to be able to fettle ailing front strut top mounts which might not have survived the pounding of 150 competitive miles beginning right from the exit of Maralal Lodge. Ironically, that river crossing proved to be passable not long after, but that’s the way the weather works in Kenya.

The final leg, starting at 4am on Easter Monday, formed a loop to the East of Muranga before returning to Nairobi along the Thika Road for the 8.35am finish in the spacious grounds of the Kenyatta Conference Centre in the heart of the city.

The entire route of 2800 miles, shortened somewhat by the route change after Maralal, consisted of 45h 55m running time and no less than 72h 40m of rest, and that does not include the 40m additional rest due to the cancellation. Of course, to find the actual running time of a car, you should add its lateness, and for the winner this comes to 48h 2m. The last (27th) finisher’s running time was 73h 21m.

All this, however, is not to say that the competitive distance of the Safari, both actual and intended, was not punishing in the extreme. We have been critical in some ways, but we are nevertheless of the continued opinion that this event offers the best mixture of competition and adventure available in world class rallying. Where else can you halt your practice to rescue a stricken elephant trapped in a deep mud hole, take a shower under a perforated oil drum slung in a tree, endure blistering heat one moment and be blinded by a violent storm the next? Despite the interference of FISA, the Safari remains an outstanding contest.

The field this year consisted of 57 starters, two less than in 1990, among them teams representing Lancia, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Daihatsu. Lancia, the team’s sponsor Martini having taken over the backing of the rally itself after Marlboro’s long run came to an end last year, brought three Delta Integrales for Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero and Jorge Recalde/ Martin Christie.

Toyota also had three cars, Celica GT4s driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Björn Waldegard/Fred Gallagher and Mikael Ericsson/Claes Billstam. They ran at numbers two, three and four, which made things rather hectic at service points, at least in the early stages of the event.

Nissan was the first of the Japanese factories to contest the Safari as a works team, although in its early days it was called Datsun. Its first victory was in 1970 and the make appeared every year since, until 1969 after which its two-wheel drive cars were not considered sufficiently competitive to match the opposition. Meanwhile, a new four-wheel drive version of the Sunny, the GTI, was under development, and after a year of intensive testing immediately after just about every round of the World Rally Championship, the car made its first competitive appearance in the 1991 Safari.

Having been built in Japan, then further adapted at Nissan Motorsport Europe’s base in England, the three cars, driven by Stig Blomqvist/Benny Mellander, David Llewelin/Peter Diekmann and Mike Kirkland/Surinder Thatthi, bristled with electroncs, even in their transmission systems which were said to possess their own “intelligence”. There were even telemetry systems fitted, enabling signals from an array of sensors in the cars to be transmitted to attendant helicopters, from which they were bounced to computer banks manned by experts in vehicles which leap-frogged their way around the route.

Telemetry is widely used in Formula One racing, but it was said that this was the first time it had been used in rallying. That is not quite the case, for Mercedes, during that make’s few years in World Championship rallying more than a decade ago, used telemetry during extensive testing prior to the Safari, when the test car sent its signals to recording equipment installed in a helicopter. The system was not used during the rally itself, but team boss Waxenburger proudly claimed at the time, “Now, in Stuttgart, we have simulated the whole of the Taita Hills.”

Nissan’s object may not have been to collect data for simulation, but the boffins were certainly monitoring everything that happened in the cars, and occasionally passing a warning to a crew that all was not well. Sometimes they were right; sometimes they were not, and we once heard a competitor comment, after being told that his oil pressure was dropping and its temperature increasing, “My gauges read normal, and I prefer to trust those than yours.”

The Subaru team operated from Britain by Prodrive did not make the trip to Kenya, but there were four Legacies entered privately, and backed by the Kenyan company Associated Vehicle Assemblers (AVA). Drivers were Ian Duncan/Dave Williamson, Patrick Njiru/Bob Khan, Jaswinder Matharu/Andy Nagi and Michael Hughes/Salim Hajee. Similarly, the one Mitsubishi Galant VR4 entered by Ralliart did not come from Britain but from Japan and was driven by Kenjiro Shinozuka/John Meadows.

The most surprising team was that of Daihatsu which, through local distributors Ryce Motors, entered four of their front-wheel drive Charades and got all four of them to the finish after the very minimum of attention along the route. Drivers of the Charades were Lynda Hughes/Vanessa Evans, Steve Anthony/Philip Valentine, Ashok Pattni/Raffiq Cassam and Guy Jack/Dez Page-Morris, and it really was remarkable to see them arriving at service points fairly close together, only to have fuel, perhaps tyre changes and high pressure washes to get mud out of radiators.

Running at number eight as an A-seeded driver was the inevitable Rudolf Stohl from Austria, with co-driver Reinhard Kaufmann, a pair who just have to come back to the Safari year after year. They were in their usual Audi 90 quattro. Further down the list was Lofty Drews who made the journey back from his new home in Australia to partner Jayant Shah in a Nissan 200 SX.

Each of the teams had an aircraft flying throughout the event to provide radio relay facilities, whilst Lancia, Nissan and Toyota each had helicopters for close support, Lancia three and the others two each.

No comment about the Safari would be complete without mention of the weather, for this can often mean make or break, finish or retire. Prior to Easter there had been a long drought in Kenya, so long that the bush was more brown than green from the air, roads were baked hard and uncommonly dusty, animals were moving far from their usual haunts in search of water and farmers were inevitably complaining about the crop losses they seemed to be facing.

Short, isolated showers here and there were dismissed as “Lake Rains” and not the real “Long Rains” due towards the end of March. But, only two days before the start, the skies blackened as far as the eye could see and down those rains came in one violent storm after another. The countryside greened over almost overnight, the animals and farmers became happier, rivers began to flow, roads became softer and muddier and service planners took renewed interest in their tyre stocks.

It didn’t turn out to be an entirely wet Safari, for after the initial days of storms the rain settled into a pattern and fell largely in the late afternoons, evenings and nights. Nevertheless the going was mostly on the muddy side, and high-pressure water hoses were invariably brought into use at every service point before the mud had a chance to bake as hard as rock, blocking cooling devices and jamming components such as brake calipers.

The first day began with the short special stage at Nairobi’s racecourse which, after steady overnight rain, turned out to be a sea of mud. With leaders’ penalties little over two minutes and varying generally by just a few seconds, the results were no more than academic.

The first real sections came when the rally moved off the tarmac at Mathatani to head into the Mua Hills, to skirt Machakos and emerge at Makindu. It was here that Blomqvist ran into trouble when he began losing engine oil at an alarming rate through a cracked sump. Constant replenishments were necessary, and when he finally emerged from the section he was attended by both a chase car and a helicopter, each having carried enough oil to lubricate an entire convoy. A new sump was waiting for him, but he had lost some 45 minutes to his rivals. Later, he needed a new rear differential, and the next day Kirkland needed his changed. One comment was that the computerised transmission decided it didn’t need any oil!

Kirkland had intercom failure and later needed turbocharger replacement, Sainz had his clutch bled, whilst both Ericsson and Recalde needed driveshaft replacements, the latter after a front left puncture and losing a wheel. Shinozuka later lost tune having his gearbox changed after being left with just 2nd gear in the Taita Hills

The Taita Hills section, at 25 miles, was the shortest it has been for some time, and the final eight of those miles were on tarmac. Competitors left the Mombasa Road at Voi, entered the hills at Bura and emerged at Mwatate, which meant that the wide, tarmac road from Voi to Mwatate carried two-way rally traffic, on a non-competitive section of course.

It was at the Mwatate T-junction, where competitors turned left on the main road after leaving the hills, that Llewelin’s rally came to a sudden and violent end. Emerging from the junction and heading for the Nissan service vans which were parked on the opposite side of the road at the junction, his Nissan hit the driver’s side of the Subaru driven by Alwi Hassan and Shailen Shah.

Llewelin and Diekmann suffered severe bruising, but Hassan and Shah sustained various fractures, Hassan being trapped in his car for some twenty minutes whilst crowbars were brought into use to free him. A fifth casualty was the Nissan mechanic, a Japanese, who was standing at the junction to direct Llewelin to the service cars and was hit by the Subaru after it was deflected sideways by the Nissan. He sustained fractured ribs.

After treatment on the spot by two team doctors, all five injured were later flown to hospital.

At Mombasa, Sainz was leading from Waldegard and Recalde, followed by Kankkunen and Biasion, but on the return journey the Italian driver was put out of the rally when he collided with the back of a lorry during overtaking. The crew were uninjured, but the Lancia was so badly damaged that it could not be repaired.

Back at Nairobi there were five drivers whose penalties totalled half an hour or less — Sainz, Waldegard, Kankkunen, Recalde and Ericsson who were placed in that order. Duncan was sixth in his AVA Subaru.

The rally continued on the Friday morning, through the Kedong valley behind the Ngong hills, up to Seyabei and on through Elburgon towards Timboroa and thence back to Nakuru. Almost without turning a hair, Waldegard reported that he had rolled after Molo, but all the car needed at the time was a few hammer blows, a new windscreen and a check of fluids. Apparently it was just a gentle roll!

Sainz, after noticing that his turbocharger intercooler water temperature was increasing, needed a new water pump, whilst Recalde, after losing his power steering, had a new hydraulic pipe fitted. Duncan lost some 25 minutes when his engine suddenly stopped and he had to wait until a new engine management computer could be brought to him and fitted. At the same time, the front left wheel bearing was replaced.

A huge thunderstorm was centred over Nakuru when cars began arriving on the Friday afternoon, but it did not dampen the spirits of rally leaders Sainz and Moya who needed no more that a new rear driveshaft and a routine check. Having gone to Kenya directly from Portugal, where they won by little over a minute from Auriol and Occelli, they had precious little time to practice but were nevertheless driving as though they knew every inch of the road by heart. Team-mate Waldegard lost 48 minutes whilst shock absorbers, a rear driveshaft and the front differential were changed, perhaps a legacy of his earlier roll.

Kankkunen’s comment was that he was not going quite as quickly as he was able, “But just enough to keep the pressure on Sainz.” All four Daihatsus were still going with remarkable reliability, although all of them had got stuck in mud for a little time in the new section just South of Seyabei on the Narok road.

After Nakuru, the Saturday run was to Eldoret, and it was at Nyaru, after the climb of the wide but tortuous road up the escarpment from the fluorospar mine in the Kerio Valley, that Duncan discovered that sportsmanship has not been lost in the heat of intense competition. Unable to locate his service car (which had not arrived), he was desperate for fuel and was relieved when Toyota mechanics agreed to refuel his Subaru.

Still before dawn, there was a bizarre incident at Plateau, where a passage control was located in the very short distance between a level crossing and a T-junction, the control coming just after the crossing and just before the junction. Shah and Drews were about to enter the control when, as they negotiated the crossing, they experienced a severe jolt and found their car moving sideways along the railway, wedged in front of a train! Fortunately, it was not pushed very far before it bumped off the rails and to one side.

Although unhurt, they were badly shaken, and more than a little angry that no warning had been given that a train was approaching. Their Nissan was too badly damaged to continue.

Njiru lost well over an hour after breaking a driveshaft and waiting for a service crew to arrive with a replacement. Kirkland also broke a driveshaft, whilst Blomqvist found that his car’s telemetry system was consuming so much battery power that when he switched on his wipers his lights were dimming. With telemetry switched off there was no difficulty, so from then on the team’s boffins were without any transmitted data from Blomqvist’s car, at least until full daylight.

Shinozuka had a slipping cluch changed after completing the Cherangani Hills section, whilst Recalde had earlier broken his steering rack which was replaced in a non-competitive section but at a cost of three minutes. Sainz also complained of steering difficulty, but this seemed to be cured when the rack brackets were replaced.

Waldegard’s clutch pedal was becoming softer and softer, and eventually went to the floor with no effect. No amount of pumping would get it to work, and it is to his credit that he drove through a very muddy section without a clutch and did not get stuck. Bleeding made no difference; neither did two clutch changes, and it was not until the next day, after the master cylinder was changed, that clutch operation returned to normal.

A broken front driveshaft in the Cherganis led to a seized hub on Blomqvist’s car. Heli-borne mechanics, after back tracking to collect spares, eventually changed the shaft and hub, but later felt that the shaft had not been fully inserted into the gearbox. However, at the next service stop it took only a couple of minutes or so to make sure it was pressed fully home.

Kankkunen needed some welding around the turret of his front right suspension top mount. He said that he had caught up with Sainz in the Cheranganis but had been unable to pass due to the amount of mud and stones being thrown up. There was also considerable fog in those hills, and Ericsson commented that he could hardly see the front of his bonnet! Sainz needed a new driveshaft and turbocharger, and commented that his engine did not seem to be giving quite as much power as earlier in the rally.

At Eldoret the Daihatsus had their first front suspension changes of the rally, but the rear units were considered perfectly okay after having already covered nearly 2000 miles. Michael Hughes’ gearbox oil was overheating, but hoped that an oil change would cure the problem.

Kankkunen eventually got ahead of Sainz on the road, but at Eldoret the Spaniard still led the Finn by four minutes. Ericsson had got up to third place, ahead of Recalde.

However, all that changed soon after the restart from Eldoret. Sainz, who had the previous day felt that his engine was down on power, noticed that his engine water temperature had increased. Very soon after, his engine expired suddenly and noisily, its cylinder block cracked.

It was on this same section that Kirkland put his Nissan off the road and stopped with its nose over the lip of a steep bank. Unable to reverse, he was aided by the crew of a nearby Land Rover, but even they could not get him out. Eventually, Sainz came along, on the end of a tow-rope behind a chase car, and they stopped to lend a hand. It was an incorrect assumption by a later competitor that led to the rumour that Kirkland and Sainz had collided.

The winch in Sainz’ car was brought into use, but as neither Spaniard had used it before, and no-one at the scene could read the German instructions, it was some time before they could get it to work. Eventually, it was hitched to a tree and the racking began. Imagine the concern when, instead of the car coming up, the tree fell down!

It was almost a comedy situation, but then along came a Nissan chase car whose crew knew exactly how to use their winch, and within ten minutes Kirkland’s car was back on the road and on its way again.

At Maralal, Guy Jack’s Daihatsu appeared with its floorpan ripped open as though with a tin opener, the result of running over a sharp rock. All four cars in the team were running as well as ever, although Lynda Hughes said that she had been baulked in the mud, even by her team-mates, and had collected a cracked windscreen and lights.

At the restart from Maralal there was some consternation caused by the re-route, for some service cars had already left for their position in the cancelled section. The loss of official communications aggravated the problem, but eventually the re-route was confirmed, and a departure from Eldoret 40 minutes after scheduled time, allowing service cars to re-position.

Having an unexpected bonus in service time brought relief to many crews, but it did not stop Waldegard from saying, “If we have time to change, I will take anything that’s new. Otherwise I’ll stay with what I’ve got.”

Not long after, just after lunch in fact, the survivors got to the Aberdare Country Club for the final night stop. Some, notably the Toyota drivers, were disappointed that the northern loop had been scrubbed; others were delighted. After Sainz’ departure, Ericsson had been hoping for as much competitive motoring as possible to give him a chance of making up the Kankkunen’s 20 minute advantage, but this was not to be.

The final leg was relatively short, but it was enough to scare Duncan when his right rear hub seized. A chase car went to his aid, and twenty minutes later he was on his way again, having held on to his sixth place. Another to stop was Guy Jack, but after his fan-belt was replaced, he carried on. Iwase broke a driveshaft, but he too was able to continue.

That was about it. Twenty-seven finishers drove past huge crowds along the Thika Road into Nairobi. In the first days of the rally it seemed that the reigning World Champion would score another victory, but nothing can ever be taken for granted, and now Kankkunen is only two points behind Sainz. Lancia has also moved up among the manufacturers and is now just three points behind Toyota.

For Martini, sponsorship of the rally could have been nothing but a success. It was a hasty, toe-in-the-water exercise, and it seems almost certain that the association will continue for some time. The company considers the event well worth the investmem and, despite what we said in earlier paragraphs, so do we. It remains a giant among rallies. — GP

***

Portuguese Rally — 5 – 9 March, 1991

Results (top five):

1. Carlos Seinz (E)/Luis Moya (E) — (Toyota Celica GT4, Gp A) — 6h 06m 36s

2. Didier Auriol (F)/Bernard Occelli (F) — (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) — 6h 07m 23s

3. Massimo Biasion (I)/Tizanio Siviero (I) — (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) — 6h 08m 41s

4. Juha Kankkunen (SF)/Juha Piironen (SF) — (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) — 6h 13m 57s

5. Markku Alén (SF)/Ilkka Kivimåki — (Subaru Legacy, Gp A) — 6h 34m 12s

95 starters, 28 finishers.

***

Safari Rally — 27 March – 1 April, 1991

Results (top five):

1. Juha Kankkunen (SF)/Juha Piironen (SF) — (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) — 2h 07m 10s

2. Mikael Ericsson (S)/Claes Billstam (S) — (Toyota Celica GT4, Gp A) — 2h 33m 34s

3. Jorge Recalde (RA)/Martin Christie (RA) — (Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A) — 2h 46m 13s

4. Bjorn Waldegärd (S)/Fred Gallagher (GB) — (Toyota Celica GT4, Gp A) — 3h 56m 08s

5. Stig Blomqvist (S)/Benny Mellander (S) — (Nissan Sunny GTI, Gp A) — 5h 17m 24s

57 starters, 27 finishers.

***

World Championship Situation

Driver points (top 5) after 4 of 14 rounds: Carlos Sainz (E) – 40; Juha Kankkunen (SF) – 38; Massimo Biasion (I) – 27; Kenneth Ericsson (S); Markku Alén – 20

Make points (top 5) after 3 of 10 rounds: Toyota – 57; Lancia – 54; Subaru – 18; Ford – 14; Nissan – 10