Back on Safari

Out of Africa

What’s the most famous rally in the world? Monte Carlo, for sure – but the next best-known is surely the Safari.

Last year it returned after a 19-year absence from the World Rally Championship: not quite the no-holds-barred epic that people remembered – the route is now run on closed special stages rather than public roads, for example – but the name is still as emblematic.

Sebastien Ogier and Toyota won the event in 2021, as Pirelli also returned to the WRC as single supplier. This added to Toyota’s incredible history on the Safari as the most successful manufacturer on the African event, but Kalle Rovanpera comes to the rally this weekend as championship leader and so runs first on the road: always a challenge, but especially on the rough terrain of Kenya.

Ogier is back and will also face his old rival Sebastien Loeb, who returns with M-Sport Ford for another attempt at the event he last contested in 2002, finishing fifth.
 
That year – the final one of the ‘old’ Safari – marked the 25th and final won for the great Colin McRae, who used Pirelli tyres on his Ford Focus WRC to win by nearly three minutes. At the time, there was still open competition among tyre manufacturers, with Pirelli proving to be the strongest and the fastest.

Extreme strength

The Safari is all about extremes: not just extremes of weather – which can range from apocalyptic heat to torrential rain – but also jaw-dropping scenery. It’s unquestionably the most photogenic rally in the world, with iconic images from the past recording the cars jumping to the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, while Masai tribesmen look on.

It was always the rally where crews interacted most with local life, as it used to be run on open roads – alongside normal traffic – over competitive sections that went on for hundreds of kilometres. Spotter helicopters were linked by radio to the cars to warn of hazards ahead (which might include a herd of elephants) and the terrain was almost unimaginably rough. To cope with the conditions, teams used to build bespoke cars, with strengthened bodyshells, daytime running lights, and ‘snorkel’ exhausts for the many waterholes. These days, the cars are actually the same as used on other gravel events – a sign of just how strong they are in the first place. The tyres too are the standard Scorpions as seen on other WRC gravel rallues. The Safari is always a huge challenge for tyres, as there are plenty of sharp rocks and deep ruts to catch drivers out. And that’s even before it starts raining, quickly turning the roads into a swamp.

Playing by the rules

A huge part of the Safari’s historic appeal lay in the fact that it was fundamentally lawless – the rally mixed with normal traffic and there’s even a popular legend that one well-known manufacturer cheated by swapping an entire car mid-route in the Group B era. It felt like a chaotic maelstrom of cars and giraffes and people. But this maverick approach is also why the Safari dropped off the WRC calendar all those years ago. Essentially, the Safari had to change to accommodate modern-day sensibilities. And here we are today.

What we have now is something very different, mostly run through private plantations such as the Delamere Estate. However, the rally organisers – many of whom worked on the ‘old’ Safari – have maintained the spirit of the original: a definite car breaker, with some zebras in among the spectators (now safely confined to designated viewing areas) for good measure. The Safari always used to be an event that you won by going as slowly as possible: a brand new skill for the current generation of drivers, brought up on the flat-out sprints that characterise the modern WRC.

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