Thursday | 17 Jun 2021

Rally rewind: Kenya

The last time Kenya’s Great Rift Valley echoed to the sound of the Safari Rally was 2002.

Nineteen years later and one of the FIA World Rally Championship’s jewels in the crown is back in business as Nairobi and Naivasha host what will undoubtedly be an adrenaline-pumping African adventure.

The Safari of old has, of course, evolved to fit the modern-day WRC, but its character remains with challenging rocky roads, stunning picture-postcard scenery and exotic wildlife all on the 2021 menu.

And although June marks the end of Kenya’s wet season, everyone should be prepared for unpredictable weather which can transform dry and dusty trails into glutinous mudbaths in a matter of minutes.

Ahead of next week’s sixth round of the 2022 season, we turn back the clock to recall some of the Safari’s traits that made it top of the victory hit-list for every manufacturer.

Video: Safari Rally Kenya most memorable moments

1. Endurance
Gruelling, exhausting, punishing, arduous – there is a long list of similar adjectives that can be added to these that still wouldn’t do justice to the Safari, but the 1977 event was out on its own.

Seven of the 10 longest WRC rounds in history have taken place in Kenya, topped out by the 1977 rally which tested the world’s rally stars over 5949km of competition.

Every kilometre from the start in Nairobi back to the finish in the Kenyan capital was competitive and it proved the wettest Safari ever. Sections exceeding 100km were covered in deep, clinging mud and floods stretched hundreds of metres wide.

Only 12 of the 61 starters finished and the top 10 was spanned by the small matter of 16 hours……

Conditions were so demanding that scheduled four-hour rest breaks were often slashed to an hour as crews were pushed, pulled and lifted out of mudholes and torrents by ever-enthusiastic roadside helpers.

2. Open roads
Incredibly the Safari was contested over roads that remained open from start to finish.

Competitors driving flat-out had to keep their eyes peeled for matatus (buses) going about their business, with locals literally hanging on both inside and out. A more incongruous sight you could not imagine.

Add to that spectators venturing into the bush in their often ‘tired’ vehicles to watch the annual Easter spectacle and it’s easy to see why an additional pair of eyes would have been welcome. Speaking of which……

3. Eye in the sky
Competitors were aided by their own airborne spotter-crew which flew just in front of them. An open radio between helicopter and rally car allowed the spotter to warn drivers of hazards lurking on the road as they flashed through tiny villages deep in the wilderness.

4. Wildlife
It wasn’t just motorised hazards. The diversity of Kenya’s wildlife has garnered international fame and zebras, antelopes, wildebeest and even giraffes frequently wandered close enough to the roads to get a view of the action, but far enough away to stay out of harm’s way.

Not that the spotters were taking any chances….

• Full coverage from Safari Rally Kenya will be available on WRC+ All Live here, including every stage broadcast as it happens as well as key interviews, features and expert analysis from the service park.