Kenyaâ€™s Safari Rally is one of motor sportâ€™s last great challenges. Itâ€™s the longest, toughest and roughest rally in the FIA World Championship yet also one of the fastest and as such will provide the sternest test yet for the new Ford...
Kenya’s Safari Rally is one of motor sport’s last great challenges. It’s the longest, toughest and roughest rally in the FIA World Championship yet also one of the fastest and as such will provide the sternest test yet for the new Ford Focus World Rally Car.
The Ford Martini World Rally Team heads into Africa buoyed by a tremendous third place on the Swedish Rally earlier this month on only the Focus’ second rally but aware that the vast, dusty Kenyan plains and the searing heat could not be further removed from the frozen wastes of Scandinavia.
Pot-holed gravel roads, often so rough that they reduce cars to little more than walking pace, contrast with wide open stretches where cars are flat out for several kilometres. Conditions so dry and dusty that organisers often have to extends gaps between competitors to more than three minutes contrast with the threat of torrential downpours which can turn a dry road into a raging torrrent within minutes.
There has been little rest since Sweden, engineers and mechanics flying straight to Kenya after the finish of the Swedish Rally where they were joined by Colin McRae, Nicky Grist and team-mates Petter Solberg and Fred Gallagher to begin testing and recce work for the four-day rally, round three of the 14-event championship.
“The Safari is unique,” said 30-year-old McRae. “It’s a rally any of the top drivers can win because outright speed doesn’t guarantee success on endurance events like this. Reliability is the most important factor and you need a slice of luck to do well. It’s important to think about your driving on all rallies and the Safari is no different but you must drive in a different way, pacing yourself rather than going flat out from the start.
“The heat and endurance combine to make the Safari a harder event physically than any other. The constantly changing conditions mean you must vary the pace a lot on the same section and that’s harder than driving at the same speed because it means changing your rhythm. The Focus feels a good Safari car. It’s strong and if we have the reliability it’ll be good,” added the 1995 world champion, who won in Kenya in 1997.
For Solberg, competing on the Safari is a story straight from the adventure books. After finishing 11th in Sweden on his debut with Ford, the 24-year-old Norwegian was preparing for a small rally in his home country. A late night telephone call from Ford Martini World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson told him to abandon his plans and instead take the next flight to Kenya as team-mate Thomas Rådström had slipped in the team’s Nairobi hotel and broken his left leg. Solberg was to replace him.
“I feel very sorry for Thomas but from a personal point of view this is a fantastic opportunity for me at this stage in my career. It will be my fourth world championship event and for that to be one of the most famous and the most challenging rallies in the championship is a daunting but exciting prospect,” said Solberg.
“I learned a great deal in Sweden although I know that in Kenya there will be even more pressure on my first event in a Ford Focus. I’m hoping to gain good experience of the Kenyan roads during testing and the recce and I feel confident that I will do a good job for the Ford Martini team,” he added.
Wilson, who led Ford to second and third on last year’s Safari, is keen to maintain the strong showing of the Focus on the opening two rounds of the 1999 championship. “We have to be realistic,” he said. “We’ve performed well in Monte Carlo and Sweden but the Safari presents us with a whole new range of situations. The heat, the rough roads and the long competitive sections will all be new to us. But we’ve proved we’re quick learners and the long test and recce schedule will give us valuable data to allow us to perfect the car’s specification before the start of the rally.”
As the rally is unique, the regulations allow cars to be prepared well beyond the limits applicable on other rounds of the championship. ‘Roo bars’ will be carried on the front bumpers of the Ford Focus cars to offer protection in the event of a collision with the prevalent wildlife. A ‘snorkel’ leading from the engine up the windscreen pillar on the driver’s side to roof level will allow air to reach the engine if the car is in flood water.
Reinforced underbody parts and stronger components will protect the Focus against the punishment inflicted by the rough roads and two spare wheels instead of the standard one offer further support. A second fuel tank in the rear of the car enables sufficient fuel to be carried for the long competitive sections.
Nairobi hosts the four-day rally, with competitors returning there each night but the vast, dusty Kenyan plains to the north and south of the city are where the event will be won and lost. Day three sees the drivers cross the equator, some 200km north of Nairobi, during the final competitive section of the leg.
Long sections on roads not closed to other traffic are the hallmark of the Safari. A short super competitive section close to Nairobi begins and ends the event but otherwise the sections average more than 100km, making it the longest rally in the championship. Drivers cover 1,014km of competitive mileage in a route of 2,650km. The longest section is 129km. Kenya’s large numbers of wildlife roaming free in the countryside provide an extra hazard and the Ford Martini World Rally team will use spotter helicopters, in radio contact with the drivers to warn them of animals or traffic.
ROUND 3 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 25TH - 28TH FEBRUARY 1999
Thursday 25th February: Leg 1 Jamhuri Park - Nairobi Stage km Time Total km Start Jamhuri Park 14.50 *CS1 Cheetah Anza 2.42 15.00 Finish Nairobi KICC - 16.00 Totals 2.42 14.84
Friday 26th February: Leg 1 Nairobi - Nairobi Stage km Time Total km Start Nairobi KICC - 09.00 CS2 Isinya - Orien 112.40 10.24 CS3 Olooloitikosh - Kajiado 49.06 12.10 CS4 Hunters Lookout - Timbuctoo 72.56 14.06 CS5 Lenkili - Il Bisel 113.41 15.59 Finish Nairobi KICC - 19.29 Totals 347.43 764.27
Saturday 27th February: Leg 2 Nairobi - Nairobi Stage km Time Total km Start Nairobi KICC - 05.00 CS6 Elmenteita - Olengurone 89.13 07.33 CS7 Nyaru - Eldama Ravine 87.59 10.35 CS8 Morendat - Mbaruk 81.40 13.42 CS9 Marigat - Gari Ya Moshi 129.11 15.54 Finish Nairobi KICC - 19.56 Totals 387.23 1,255.79
Sunday 28th February: Leg 3 Nairobi - Nairobi Stage km Time Total km Start Nairobi KICC - 06.00 CS10 Lenkili - Il Bisel 113.41 07.43 CS11 Isinya - Orien 112.40 09.35 CS12 Olooloitikosh - Kajiado 49.06 11.23 CS13 Cheetah Anza 2.42 14.00 Finish Nairobi KICC - 15.20 Totals 277.29 615.34
Rally total 1,014.37 2,650.24
* Stage run in reverse order