The 2015 Kenya Airways Safari Classic gets underway in Mombasa next month. With some of the toughest rally roads in the world and the possibility of a wildlife encounter, there is no other race quite like it…
The Safari Rally was first held in 1953 and, as it was ostensibly celebrating the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, it was called the East African Coronation Safari. Gradually the European rally teams got to hear of this tough, no-nonsense event in East Africa. Once established stars such as Maurice Gatsonides, Ronnie Adams, Erik Carlsson and Pat Moss visited the event and took back the good news, it became a part of the official rally circuit. When the inaugural World Rally Championship was created in 1973, the Safari Rally was one of the thirteen chosen events.
For many years there was the suggestion that a driver from outside East Africa would never win the Safari, but in 1972 all that changed when Hannu Mikkola won for Ford and the rally started and finished in Dar es Salaam. Originally, the route lay through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but by the mid-1970s, it was run in Kenya alone. With increasing traffic on the Kenyan roads and demands from the international motor body, the FIA, to shorten the route, the last ‘proper’ Safari was held in 2002 in a confined area in the Rift Valley.
The idea then dawned to resurrect the Safari Rally as an event more like the original, but for what are termed ‘classic’ cars. This new Safari Classic was held in 2003 and has been followed every two years since. The Safari Classic is now under the direction of its major shareholder Raju Kishinani, who has been involved with the event since it was created back in 2003. Together with his fellow shareholder J.S.Vohra, who is the owner of the Sarova Group of hotels, they have pledged to make the rally more attractive to competitors than ever before. Thus the 2015 Kenya Airways Safari Classic provides the challenge of unrestricted driving on virtually open roads and tracks. It has also been able to incorporate Tanzania in its plans so that competitors today see many of the tracks and sights of the original Safari rallies.
The rally crews
Right from its initiation in 2003, the Safari Classic has always attracted top drivers and excellently prepared cars. Two World Rally Champions have headed line-ups that include some of the best-known names from the golden age of rallying in the 1970s and 1980s. Names like Michèle Mouton, who was the only lady driver to win a World Championship event – in fact she won four WRC events and nearly won the 1982 World title – as well as Björn Waldegård, World Champion in 1979.
This year, Stig Blomqvist, World Rally Champion in 1984, will be back on the Safari Classic driving a Porsche 911 for the Race4- Health team. In 2013 he also drove one of their Porsches and, but for a puncture on the very last competitive section, would have won the rally.
But the Safari Classic is not all about famous drivers, and the majority of the entry is made up of people from all over the world, including East Africa, who cannot resist the challenge of a proper old-fashioned Safari.
The rally cars
All the cars entered in the Safari Classic have to have been a model built before the end of 1978 and that means no turbocharging or four-wheel drive. In the early days of the Safari Classic, models that had won the original Safari Rally before 1978 were the most popular and these included Datsun 240Zs, Ford Escorts and Peugeot 504s. However, despite the fact that Porsche had tried many times to win the original Safari Rally and failed, 911s were also entered and did well. Indeed the development of the classic Porsche 911 has resulted in them becoming the most popular and competitive car. This culminated in the 2011 victory of Björn Waldegård, driving a Porsche 911.
If Porsche popularity is tending to swell the ranks of the German car in the entry list for the 2015 Safari Classic (there are nineteen already confirmed entries from an entry list of sixty) this has in no way decreased the variety of the rest of the field. There are nine Ford Escorts of varying kinds – though the Mk2 1800cc version is the favourite choice – and there are both types of Datsun sportscar, the 240Z and the 260Z. The car with the smallest engine in the rally is an East German Trabant 601R driven by Michael Kahlfuss. Both he and the car have been ‘on Safari’ before, since he did the old Safari Rally in the Trabant in 1994 and was also entered in the 2003 Safari Classic, which he finished. Equally special is the Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 driven and prepared by Marzio Kravas of Kenya. Kravas maintains that the Ferrari is basically a strong car and he has done a lot of work on his to allow him to make that point. In 2013 he got round more than two-thirds of the route before succumbing to a fuel supply problem. Variety also comes in the form of two English Triumph TR7 V8s entered by veteran Safari Rally driver Franck Tundo of Kenya for himself and his son Carl (who competes regularly on East African events in modern rally cars).
Front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, all these cars have to conform to modern safety standards imposed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and the crews have to wear appropriate fireproof overalls and crash helmets. It is a long way from that first Coronation Safari, with crews wearing shorts and casual shirts, but these days safety comes first. Each car is fitted with a tracking device that uses GPS and the East African mobile phone systems to plot the position of all the competitors on a large display in the rally office. And anyone can track the progress of the rally cars using the same information on the event website.
The details of the route are unknown to the entrants, to remove the temptation to go out and reconnoitre the stages. More sections this year are on private roads. There are three competitive sections every day giving an average daily total of some 300km. The longest is 174km and the shortest 23km, while there are at least eight other sections of over 100km.
The rally starts outside Mombasa at the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort & Spa. The first day of competition is a loop that goes up to Malindi and back to Whitesands. The second day takes the rally into the Amboseli National Park, with its famous lodges and views of Mount Kilimanjaro. The third day utilises a loop out from Amboseli, while on the fourth day the rally enters Tanzania to spend two nights (including a rest day) at Lake Manyara.
On leaving Lake Manyara, the cars head for the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha for a two-night stay with the sixth day of rallying then looping out from there. The following day the rally plunges into the Pare Mountains before crossing back into Kenya to spend a night in the shadow of the Taita Hills. The final day sees it head back to its base at Whitesands on the Indian Ocean for the finish and prizegiving.
Closing date of entries October 1
Publication of list of entries October 14
Documentation Whitesands, Mombasa November 16 to 18
Scrutineering of cars Whitesands, Mombasa November 17 to 18
Start from Whitesands, Mombasa November 19 at 07:00
Night halt in Whitesands, Mombasa November 19
Night halts in Amboseli, National Park November 20 & 21
Night halts in Lake Manyara, National Park November 22 & 23
Night halts in Arusha November 24 & 25
Night halt in Taita Hills November 26
Finish at Whitesands, Mombasa – prizegiving November 27
Did you know?
• For 20 years only local crews won the Safari Rally. Many European teams came but failed to take the top prize. This ended when Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm from Finland and Sweden respectively won in 1972 driving a Ford Escort RS1600.
• The first turbocharged car to win the Safari Rally was a Toyota Celica TC Turbo driven by Björn Waldegård and Hans Thorselius. It was not until 1987 that a four-wheel drive car won the Safari and that was an Audi 200 Quattro driven by Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz. From 1988 until the last Safari Rally in 2002, the event was always won by a turbocharged, four-wheel drive car.
• The very first Coronation Safari had three starting places in the three countries: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Forty-two of the fifty-six starters chose to start from Nairobi. They were taken in convoy out to the end of the city speed limit and there given a mass start.
• The most successful driver on the Safari Rally was Shekhar Mehta who won it five times between 1973 and 1982. On each occasion he was driving for the Nissan team in Datsuns.
Blomqvist was World Rally Champion in 1984, driving an Audi Quattro. During that year he won five of the toughest championship events, including the Ivory Coast Rally in West Africa. He first competed on the Safari Rally in 1971 when he drove a Saab 96 V4, and competed six more times but never won it. Blomqvist has driven the Safari Classic four times, finished second twice and third once.
Q Do you think that this year you can nail your Safari jinx?
I would like to. It was so close last time – to lose the lead almost at the finish.
Q And is the Porsche 911 the car to finally bring you that win?
If my car this year is as good as the one I drove in 2013, then I believe that we can do it. They tell me the roads are going to be a bit less rough this time and that suits the Porsche.
Q In 2011 there was a lot of rain before the rally and some places were very muddy. If it happens again, would that be good for you?
My first experience on the Safari was in a front-wheel drive car and they sometimes lack traction in the mud. Then I drove the four-wheel drive Audi that is much harder to get stuck in, but a Porsche is good too, with its engine on top of the driving wheels. But if the mud is really deep then the best thing is to find another road and drive round it!
Q Do you like rallying here?
Kenya is a beautiful country with fantastic places, animals and hotels, and is wonderful to visit. But it also has some of the toughest rally roads in the world so it is always a challenge to drive here. I am looking forward to it.