Twenty-four years after his last competitive start, when he finished 12th in the African classic alongside wife Ewa, Zasada returns to the wheel to tackle one of motorsport’s most famous and toughest challenges.
The Pole, who finished second in the 1972 Safari driving a Porsche 911S, will drive a Ford Fiesta Rally3 run by M-Sport Poland this time, on the Safari’s return to the WRC after a 19- yea absence.
During a long and distinguished career, Zasada won the European Rally Championship three times in 1966, 1967 and 1971 and finished runner-up on three more occasions. Much of his career pre-dated the launch of the FIA World Rally Championship in 1973 and the holder of the European title was regarded as the de facto world champion.
We caught up with Zasada before he boarded his flight to Nairobi to begin final preparations for the four-day fixture in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
Q. Why did you decide to drive Safari Rally Kenya again?
A. I’ve always found the Safari to be a fantastic rally. I have already competed in it eight times - the last time in 1997. I am very curious to see what this rally looks like in its present form and that’s why I decided to go.
Q. How big a challenge do you think this will be and what is your goal?
A. Of course, this is a challenge and my goal is purely to reach the finish line.
Q. How emotional will it be to return to the Safari 24 years after your last visit?
A. It’s hard to talk about emotions because it is difficult to compare my previous rallies, which were very difficult, with what is happening now. Back then, I was driving up to 6000km non-stop! These were very difficult rallies. In the longest Safari Rally in 1972, which was 6480km long, I finished second. The winner was over nine hours behind the time schedule. It was driving for three days and three nights, without any break. Drinking tea helped me a lot!
Q. Your grandson Daniel Chwist will also drive – what advice do you have for him?
A. I taught my grandchildren to drive when they were 12 years old. From the beginning, I told them the most important thing is to get to the finish line at the right speed. Daniel drives very well and we talk a lot about rallies and driving techniques. My younger grandson, Artur, is also a very good driver and successfully competes in the 24 hours series driving a KTM GTX car.
Video: Safari Rally preview
Q. You have driven the Safari eight times in your career. What is it that keeps taking you back?
A. It’s the challenge. Safari used to be a very difficult rally, even the toughest in the world. Even the one from 1997 was easier than those from the 1960s. I think that those rallies were three or even four times more difficult than the current ones in terms of endurance and condition. Even 24 years ago, we had over 1000km of special stages, but we also had two stages in total, about 700km, which could not be completed in time.
Q. What’s the secret to being successful there?
A. The driver must drive fast and well. In the past, rallies were races from start to finish. In my previous rallies you had to go as fast as possible to be in the lead, even without service breaks (we did these during the competitive sections). Now it is different, there are many service points and the special stages are much shorter. This year there are a total of 18 special stages with a total length of 320 km.
In my career, there have been rallies that were as long as 30,000km, like the one around South America. London-Sydney was over 16,000 km, and the Australian Perth-Sydney section contained 6000km of non-stop driving. If you made up for a bit, you could rest for an hour or two.
Q. What are your best memories of the Safari?
A. A strong memory is my accident in 1972, which made me lose a lot of time. I was then overtaken by three factory Fords, but soon after I managed to overtake two of them: Vic Preston Jr and Timo Mäkinen, the leading competitors of these times. Finally, I took second and the winner was Hannu Mikkola, driving Ford.
You also have to remember that those times I’ve competed in the highest class, which is the equivalent of the current World Rally Car category. I was a factory driver of Steyr Puch, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz as the only driver from the Eastern countries. In this year’s rally, I am simply an amateur. I’m going to see what it looks like now.
I also have very interesting memories of meeting Polish people, because many Poles have lived in Kenya.
Images provided by Janek Zdzarski and Sobieslaw Zasada
• 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.