Several years ago, the writer was following the Rally of New Zealand with some photographers and seeking a vantage point that would permit the taking of useable photographs without threatening life and limb.
A spectator studied us for some time as we clambered up banks and through ditches before remarking, “You’ll be alright there for the first few, but you’ll have to look out when the Japanese come: you never know where they’re going to end up.”
He had a point. There was no denying the commitment of the assortment of Japanese privateers grappling fiercely with their unruly Group N steeds, but it was hard to be sure who was driving whom. Frankly, there wasn’t a safe vantage point on the corner, even though they were travelling 20 mph slower than their immediate rivals.
Latterly, Japanese drivers have performed with increasing success on race tracks and have made quite an impact in Grands Prix, not simply because they have access to massive sponsorship. Rallying has been another matter entirely. There have been successes: Yoshio Fujimoto and Kiyoshi Inoue have both won the Gp N category on World Championship rallies, while Kenjiro Shinozuka has polished off sketchy opposition twice to win the Ivory Coast, but it has been difficult to avoid the conclusion that sitting in traffic jams in downtown Osaka, or taking part in “rallies” where the average speed is akin to an autotest doesn’t prepare one for the forests of North Island, or Alpine passes for that matter.
The question of Japanese rally drivers has been a source of disquiet within Japanese teams, particularly Toyota Team Europe, for some time. Aware that the Japanese media has tended to concentrate on F1 and Le Mans, despite the remarkable success of Japanese cars in World Championship rallies, TTE has made strenuous efforts to recruit a Japanese driver who would be something more than a makeweight.
The result, after a two-day competition held at Silverstone in late 1993, has been a limited role for Yoshio Fujimoto. It’s wildly improbable that a 33-year old European would have been signed up by a major rally team and there has never been much doubt that Fujimoto’s main asset to Toyota (and Castrol for that matter) has been his nationality.
His past performances did little to inspire confidence. When Ian Duncan lost an hour on the second competitive section of the Safari by ripping the rear crossmember out on a rock, there was a distinct air of foreboding within TTE; it would, after all, have to rely on his team-mate and nothing in the latter’s record suggested that he would stand up to pressure from his older and slower compatriot, Shinozuka. Hadn’t he crashed heavily on last year’s Safari, putting his co-driver in hospital? Hadn’t he speared off the road again on the RAC, shortly after being overtaken by the top Formula Two car?
Asked how he viewed the position, TTE’s President, Ove Andersson, said that he was “Not confident at all”.
Was that a quote?
“Take it any way you like,” responded Andersson.
Fujimoto rose triumphantly to the occasion. He had his share of luck, glancing off a matatu (one of the brightly painted, grossly overloaded, erratically driven ‘buses that provide the most common means of transport in East Africa), getting punctures that didn’t cost him his lead on the road and then rolling gently without doing any significant damage but, as the event wore on, it became increasingly clear that he had the measure of Shinozuka. Since he had been able to drive a Gp N Lancer quicker than the veteran could drive a Gp A version, this wasn’t a revelation. His composure and resilience were.
Victory for a Japanese driver on the Safari was a historic step and it will put Fujimoto at least in a new light. His preparations included an unprecedented recce of between eight and 10 laps of the entire route, and a visit to an Austrian sports doctor-cum-psychologist, which led to a new training regime and mental approach. His application and determination are world class.
Yet Richard Burns was sometimes within five minutes of the leading duo in a Gp N Subaru before his absurd collision with some foolish spectators, on an event that puts a Gp N car at more of a disadvantage than any other. It is wildly improbable that Fujimoto will triumph in a well-supported sprint event such as New Zealand, as he realises, and therefore the search for a Japanese driver with World Championship ability continues. It will require something more intensive than a two-day exam at a British rally school.
• A re-jigged route made servicing vastly easier and TTE therefore took its smallest-ever complement to the Safari 41 people.
• The 1995 event was the shortest ever Safari on record, at 1,859 miles.
• Richard Bums/Robert Reid were on course for third place in their 555 Subaru, which would have been their best World Championship result, until they crashed into spectators cars blocking the road.
• Only one manufacturer scored World Championship points: Daewoo. The lone Gp N Cielo driven by Azar Anwar/Shailen Shah finished 18th overall. No other two-wheel drive car finished this Two Litre World Championship qualifier.
• Historic cars took part in the Safari for the first time, albeit over a shortened route. The surprise winners were Tim and Mark McCloy in a Frogeye Sprite. Like Anwar/Shah, they were the only finishers.
• Sammy Aslam was holding a place in the top 10 and well on course for maximum F2 points, until his Golf was halted by transmission trouble.
555 Safari Rally – April 13-16 1995
1: Yoshio Fujimoto / Arne Hertz – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
2: Kenjiro Shinozuka / Pentti Kuukkala – Mitsubishi Lancer E3, GpA
3: Ian Duncan / Dave Williamson – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
4: Hideaki Miyoshi / Mo Verjee – Subaru Impreza WRX, GPA
5: Marco Brighetti / Peter Stone – Subaru Impreza WRX, GpA.