Ford bids to tame African wilderness & claim treble. After dominating the toughest European round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Greece last month, Ford Rallye Sport will aim for its third consecutive victory when the series switches to...
Ford bids to tame African wilderness & claim treble.
After dominating the toughest European round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Greece last month, Ford Rallye Sport will aim for its third consecutive victory when the series switches to Africa for the hardest challenge of all. Kenya's Safari Rally (11 - 14 July), round eight of 14, is one of motorsport's great adventures and success in the East African classic is prized by drivers and teams alike.
After victories on the Rally Argentina in May for Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and success for team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist on the Acropolis Rally in June, Ford has its sights set on a hat-trick for the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car in Kenya. The omens are good. McRae has twice won there, including the Focus' first world rally win in 1999, Sainz has triumphed once and both know how demanding the Safari is.
It is a rally of superlatives. It is the roughest, toughest, longest and highest rally in the series yet, paradoxically, also one of the fastest. Despite undergoing major changes in recent years in order to move with the modern era of world rallying, it retains a unique atmosphere and demands a wider repertoire of skills - and a greater slice of luck - than any other event.
The vast Kenyan plains - with only a rally car, a long dust plume trailing behind and small clusters of Masai tribespeople infiltrating the wilderness alongside roaming giraffe and zebra, is one of the sport's great picture postcards. But behind the spectacular scenery lies an event almost three times longer than a normal world rally and all on rough roads capable of breaking man and machine - the kind of terrain in which the Focus RS won the Acropolis Rally after leading from start to finish.
Punishing competitive sections in excess of 100km offer vastly contrasting conditions. First gear sections across rocky washaways frequently follow flat out blasts over dusty valley tracks lasting several kilometres. Conditions for this year's event are likely to be even harder following a heavier than normal rainy season which has left the tracks rougher than usual.
"The Safari is like no other rally," said McRae. "It's so long and demanding that you have to choose a speed you like and stick with it, without worrying about the pace of others. After the way the Focus RS dominated the Acropolis Rally, I guess Ford will start as favourites. We know the car is tough and goes well on rough rallies and despite this year's route changes the Safari is still harder than any other rally.
"I think it's a great event because it's such an adventure. It's the only one of the season which differs from the standard format. There's been a lot of talk about not having the Safari in the championship but I think it definitely has a place. Rather than the rally being made easier, I would like to see it go the other way and return to the tougher-style Safaris of the past," added the 33-year-old Scot.
Sainz is equally confident. "The Focus has been reliable and strong and those are the main attributes you need for the Safari," said the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver.
"The long sections and limited opportunities for service mean it's the type of rally where a small problem that's out of your control can develop into a much bigger one and cost a lot of time. The important thing is to know how much the car can take and drive to those limits. I think we proved in Greece that the car can withstand a lot," he added.
The Safari will be a steep learning curve for Ford Rallye Sport's third pairing of Markko Märtin and Michael Park. The 26-year-old Estonian driver impressed hugely by leading the Acropolis Rally throughout the opening day in his Focus RS but his first trip to the Safari will require greater caution.
"I really don't know what to expect," admitted Märtin. "I've never been to Kenya before so I have no expectations at all. My target is purely to try to finish the rally and gain experience of the Safari for the future although obviously the higher I can finish the better that would be. It's not realistic for me to set other targets because everything out there will be new."
In The Spotlight
Co-drivers are often the unsung heroes of rallying and the changes in format to this year's rally place a greater emphasis on their preparation. Virtually the whole route has been revised since last year and only a tiny proportion of the competitive distance used in 2001 will be repeated. That will require drivers and co-drivers to prepare an almost brand new set of pace notes for the 2002 event.
"Some of the sections were used a few years ago and others we've used in testing in previous years so I do have notes for some parts of the rally," said co-driver Nicky Grist. "But that was when the rally was held earlier in the year and conditions were better. We understand that the roads have deteriorated so badly in the rainy season this year that our old notes are probably not much use and we'll have to re-write them all.
"That involves quite a lot of work for the co-drivers before the start, especially as the sections are so much longer than a traditional world rally," he added.
The Safari's golden jubilee event has undergone major changes in the past 12 months. Traditionally held on open roads where drivers faced other traffic as well as roaming animals, a combination of safety concerns and the need to reduce costs forced organisers to steer the rally towards closed roads. This year almost a third of the event will be run on roads closed to other traffic. As a result the route is almost entirely different from 2001 with the tests north of Nairobi, criss-crossing the Equator, being dropped. Instead the rally is based west of Kenya's capital city in the Kedong Valley, part of the spectacular Rift Valley, and the Mau Escarpment, where the route climbs to 2800m above sea level, the highest point of the championship. It comprises just four competitive sections, none shorter than 73km, which are essentially run in one direction during the first and third legs and reversed on the second day. Drivers face 1010.80km of competition, almost three times longer than a traditional world rally, in a route of 2431.87km and they are on the road for over 15 hours and almost 950km during the middle leg.