Kenya's Safari Rally (20 - 22 July) is one of motorsport's last great adventures and the ultimate challenge to teams in the FIA World Rally Championship. For the Ford Martini squad, which seized the championship lead at the midpoint of the14...
Kenya's Safari Rally (20 - 22 July) is one of motorsport's last great adventures and the ultimate challenge to teams in the FIA World Rally Championship. For the Ford Martini squad, which seized the championship lead at the midpoint of the14 round series after three consecutive victories for the Focus RS World Rally Car, the Safari offers the greatest hurdle yet in a season rich with potential.
The Safari is the last in a series of four gravel events spanning the middle of the season - each increasing in difficulty. But however tough the rallies in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece and however sweet the victories there, Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and colleagues Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya know that nothing they have experienced yet matches what lies ahead in Kenya. Current form cannot ever hope to provide an accurate guide to this classic.
The Safari is like no other world rally. The vast Kenyan plains - with only a rally car, a long dust plume trailing behind it and small gatherings of Masai tribespeople infiltrating the wilderness alongside giraffe and zebra - present one of the great picture postcard scenes of the championship.
It is the longest, toughest, roughest and highest rally in the series and, paradoxically, also one of the fastest. First gear stretches across rocky washaways contrast with flat out sections across dusty valley tracks lasting many kilometres and only the strongest cars can entertain hopes of victory. Indeed, heavy rains early in the year have left the roads even rougher than usual.
McRae, twice a Safari winner and leader of the drivers' championship after his hat-trick of wins, starts one of his favourite rallies bidding to become only the second driver ever to win four world rallies in succession. "We're very confident after our recent run of success but this rally is so unpredictable," said the 32-year-old Scot. "It's probably the only real endurance event left in the championship and it's more a question of survival than out and out speed.
"The roads are fast and open but you have to dodge the holes and rocks and look after the car more here than anywhere else. Usually most of the damage done to a car is caused by going off the road but on this rally you can cause just as much damage by staying on it. This year the recce speeds are limited to 90kph while in previous years we've been allowed to practise at rally speeds. Judging the severity of bumps and holes at 90kph in a road vehicle is very different to tackling them at more than twice that speed in a rally car," added McRae.
The experienced Sainz, winner in Kenya in 1992, is a valuable asset for the Ford Martini team on this rally, the Spaniard well aware of the secret of Safari success. "In the last three or four years the rally has moved closer to a traditional European rally but it's still very different. The roads are so rough that there are many places where you must let your head rule your heart and slow down," he said.
"The trick is to judge accurately when, and by how much, to slow down. It's difficult to gauge the correct speed when we're used to driving at 100 per cent all the time and you think others are pushing harder. The temptation is to drive faster and take more risks but of course that's when you risk going beyond the limits of the car and tyres," added Sainz.
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup will drive a third Focus RS WRC, the French pair competing in Kenya for the first time. "I don't really know what to expect but the Focus RS is such a strong car that I have no real worries," said Delecour. "I like the spirit of the rally with the long competitive sections and the sense of adventure that is required so I'm looking forward to it. It's the only world rally on which I haven't competed."
Challenge of the Safari Rally
Merely to survive the rigours of the Safari, the Ford Martini team must prepare its Focus RS cars in a very different style to a traditional gravel rally. Suspension settings are raised by about 60mm to provide additional clearance over the boulder-strewn roads and through the washaways while all-round strengthening, including a stronger sump guard, offers better protection in the punishing conditions.
The Focus RS cars will be fitted with a 'snorkel' pipe leading from the bonnet up the side of the windscreen to roof level allowing the engine to breathe in the event of torrential downpours turning dustbowls into raging torrents and forcing cars to 'wade' across rivers that were previously dry beds. However, the move from March to July should ensure little chance of rain so dry conditions will mean the pipe is reduced in size. The long competitive sections mean a larger fuel tank is required, extending capacity to 120 litres.
Roaming wildlife is one of the hazards of the rally and cars are traditionally fitted with animal protection bars around the front. This year, to improve aerodynamics, the reinforcement will be behind the bumper and nothing will be visible from the outside.
Two spotter helicopters will be used to warn the drivers of hazards on the roads and former British rally champion Mark Higgins will be one of the team's eyes in the sky. "We'll be flying just ahead of the first Ford car looking for wandering animals or traffic on the road," he said. "If we see something we'll radio the information directly to the drivers so they can be prepared. So many things happen on this rally that you don't expect so it's important the drivers have as much information as possible about the road ahead."
The rally follows its by now tried-and-tested format of holding identical opening and final legs south of Nairobi around the Whistling Thorns service park with the middle leg to the north around the Equator. The competitive sections, over open roads, are all much longer than traditional rallies with five of the 13 sections exceeding 100km. Drivers must tackle 1129.76km of tests, almost three times the length of a normal world rally, in a total route of 2958.47km. The second leg is the longest and toughest of the entire season. After a 04.00 start, drivers face almost 17 hours behind the wheel as they cover 1327.81km. For the first time in recent memory, the rally will not visit the famous Mau Escarpment, which has become too populated to host an open road event.
SAFARI RALLY 2001
ROUND 8 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 20 - 22 JULY 2001
Friday 20 July: Leg 1 Nairobi - Nairobi
Start Nairobi 08.00 SS1 Oltepesi - Olepolos 117.46km 10.20 SS2 Kajiado - Olooloitikosh 49.95km 12.28 SS3 Orien - Isinya 112.52km 14.32 SS4 Maili Tisa - Olorian 71.83km 16.41 Finish Nairobi 19.55 Total 351.76km
Saturday 21 July: Leg 2 Nairobi - Nairobi
Start Nairobi 04.00 SS5 Marigat - Gari Ya Moshi 124.48km 07.00 SS6 Mbaruk - Elmenteita 84.58km 09.10 SS7 Nyaru - Kimngorom 72.37km 11.51 SS8 Marigat - Mogotio 60.23km 14.50 SS9 Mbaruk - Elmenteita 84.58km 16.39 Finish Nairobi 20.50 Total 426.24km
Sunday 22 July: Leg 3 Nairobi - Nairobi
Start Nairobi 04.45 SS10 Oltepesi - Olepolos 117.46km 06.40 SS11 Kajiado - Olooloitikosh 49.95km 08.48 SS12 Orien - Isinya 112.52km 10.47 SS13 Maili Tisa - Olorian 71.83km 12.56 Finish Nairobi 16.15 Total 351.76km
Rally Total 1129.76km