No Room for Round Pegs in a Square World

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It was not quite a traditional Safari, yet it may be the last of its kind. David Williams believes that the wind of change is gusting through Africa.

Some of the old hands were surprised that no one had hired Bjorn Waldegard. The first World Rally Champion may be 53 now, but he has an enviable Safari record and, in a year when so many major teams were painfully short of African experience, the argument was that Waldegard was the man for the job.

When the rally started on Good Friday, it wasn’t a bad theory. By Easter Day, Tommi Makinen had blasted it to pieces. He had won the Safari at a gallop and proved that a driver of Waldegard’s age would have been run off his feet.

Makinen’s victory, on his first appearance in Africa, brashly signalled that the Safari has changed, for neither the car nor, one suspects, the driver would have won an old-style East African marathon. Even with Waldegard at the wheel, the Lancer would have fallen apart and Tommi is renowned neither for mechanical sympathy nor for patience. Indeed, Mitsubishi had a contingency plan to keep him away from the car if he looked likely to drop time servicing.

That didn’t prove necessary (for which driver and team alike deserve great credit), partly because there was perhaps twice as much service lime as on any previous Safari. It was another step in a process of evolution: in 1991, anything more than re-fuelling would result in penalties. By 1995, an extensive, penalty-free rebuild was possible at the end of each leg. This Easter, there were around 20 minutes of servicing between each section, as a concession to teams with no Safari battle honours and no opportunity to develop a true long-distance car while meeting their other commitments.

The wonder was that Mitsubishi spotted the opportunity and seized it with both hands. Since it first got a four-wheel drive car in 1988, Ralliart has been an intermittent threat, unstoppable on some occasions, an also-ran on others, but it has earned a reputation for less than full-blooded commitment and a certain lack of tactical cunning; for example, it lost the 1994 Asia-Pacific Championship by one point, having failed to impose team orders on its drivers in New Zealand.

There were no such lapses this time. A dispiriting, exceptionally destructive recce prompted a bold solution: life parts ruthlessly and change them as often as possible. Some of the mechanics spent a week in Nairobi bracing vital components, others relentlessly practised swapping parts and producing tools to make the task easier. Ralliart had a crucial weapon in Ohlins. Shock absorbers may not count for much in F1, but rallying development suggests that they are still in their infancy. Ralliart Europe has pioneered the use of effective independent-reservoir dampers, based on the Swedish firm’s motorcycle experience. Careful development with Ohlins enabled the Lancer to withstand far more punishment than it should.

“We’ve done things to it that we learnt from the recce. Every part we’ve had a problem with, we’ve managed to rectify,” said Phil Short Ralliart’s Team Manager.

Finally, Makinen was given a stern lecture on the eve of the rally, to the effect that the car wouldn’t last the first day if he didn’t slow down a little. In the event, he judged the rally beautifully. While the team had perfected the 20m re-fit, changing the Lancer’s vulnerable rear suspension up to five times daily, then rebuilding discarded corners at night, Makinen had worked out just how hard he could push the car and slackened his pace accordingly.

Its rivals needed too little servicing or too much. Colin McRae led in the early stages, but lost all chance of winning when he twice broke the suspension on the first section of the second leg and dropped 40 minutes. McRae did almost as much damage as his team-mates, Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti, combined, but all three Subaru drivers ran a constant risk of bending struts, twisting rear suspension links and snapping driveshafts.

Toyota went to the other extreme, Cologne producing a Safari tank that completed the event without a single crack in the bodyshell and would have walked away with a traditional Safari. After five minutes of each 20-minute service break the mechanics were plainly looking for things to do. Ian Duncan wasn’t quite on the pace of the European drivers anyway as he hadn’t rallied for months, but he had to cope with a Celica that was perhaps 150 kilogrammes heavier than it needed to be. Gerd Pfeiffer “Pepper” was making his first appearance as Toyota’s Safari engineer since 1991 and confessed that the five-year gap forcibly brought home the extent of change. If would be kinder to draw a veil over Ford’s return to the Safari, suffice to say that the drivers’ pre-rally pessimism was abundantly justified.

Less successful teams might protest that the Mitsubishi was stronger than it looked. Yet there was no gainsaying the fact that Ralliart had romped to victory with a judiciously strengthened Acropolis car that exploited the slackened time allowance to the limit. It was just the result the organisers had wanted, incontrovertible proof that Safari victory is attainable in something closely related to a conventional stage rally car, Without starting from scratch.

Yet it wasn’t enough. Although Peter Hughes and his team had bent over backwards to create an African rally that might appeal to World Championship contenders, the losers weren’t satisfied. McRae felt that it was a good rally, but too much of a lottery to have any place amidst the serious business of scoring World Championship points. Ford and Subaru felt that it was too long, too demanding and too different. To be competitive, teams needed twice as many mechanics as normal, a helicopter tracking each rally car and an intensive test programme to turn even an Acropolis car into something that might win the Safari. Makinen had spent 20 days practising in a Gp A car, as opposed to five or six in a much cheaper Gp N car on a “normal” rally. Never mind tradition: the bottom line is that the Safari cost every team four to five times as much as any other World Championship rally probably around £3,000.000.

By and large, the losers are neither bad sports, nor greedy businessmen with no sense of adventure and no respect for rallying’s wealth of history. They differ from their critics in bearing the brunt of intense pressure from their paymasters, the big car firms and their sponsors. They know that if they don’t come up with an appealing television package, fast, then rallying will cease to be a noticeable international sport at all. They badly need more World Championship rounds and more media coverage, and that can only be achieved by making each rally cheaper. To reject change is to sacrifice their jobs, not to mention all the modernisation that has taken place already.

The result is that the World Championship will take a step closer to Grand Prix racing, as financial necessity puts the squeeze on individuality. Rallies won’t be interchangeable, in the manner of Grands Prix, but the range of car specifications will be narrowed down to forest and asphalt, and there will be no place for an open-road race, striking across great tracts of countryside at impossible average speeds, like the Safaris of old. No one is prepared to build a car for such feats of derring-do.

If it won’t conform, the Safari may be dropped altogether and replaced with a model three-day rally with all the character and history of a Portakabin. A Chinese rally is an obvious candidate. Many Kenyan fans would say ‘Good riddance,’ arguing that the World Championship has become more trouble than it is worth, that the Safari should retain its soul and turn itself into a raid, like Paris-Dakar, in which case it would lose the big-name drivers and possibly quite a lot of its media coverage. The alternative re-casting itself as a stage rally will consign the last of the great road races to history, like the Liege or the Alpine. Doing so would sever one of the surviving links with motorsport’s origins a century ago. It is not a thing to be done lightly.

The Isle of Man TT races have thrived ploughing their own furrow, whereas the Circuit of Ireland – rallying’s other Easter classic – has gently declined in remaining true to itself. It is a hard choice to make.

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