The toughest, most epic event on the World Rally Championship this year is the famed Safari Rally in Kenya, which was due to return to the calendar last season after 18 years – until the Covid-19 pandemic got in the way.
Now though, it’s definitely coming back, with 58 cars on the entry list at the end of June. And there’s another important comeback happening at the same time.
Meet car number 36: a Ford Fiesta Rally 3, running on Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres. Its driver is Poland’s Sobieslaw Zasada, who’s about to smash a record by becoming the oldest driver ever to start a World Rally Championship event. Aged 91.
Unbelievable but true. Less than a decade off his 100th birthday, the three-time European champion is about to take on the toughest rally in the world. He’s got plenty of experience, having contested the Safari eight times before – including a second place in 1972 (the longest-ever Safari Rally at 6480 kilometres) driving a Porsche, behind Hannu Mikkola. His last attempt was in 1997, when he finished eighth in a Mitsubishi (co-driven by his wife Ewa) when already well into his 60s.
Zasada’s very first Safari was back in 1969, again in a Porsche, when he was the first European across the line. And getting to the finish again is his firm aim, 52 years later.
Zasada had actually already planned to tackle the Safari last year when it was announced as part of the 2020 calendar. But he’s not planning just to drive around slowly, making up the numbers.
“I’m really curious to see what rallies are like today compared to the ones I remember from half a century ago,” he said. “Safari is my youth and I still miss it – which us why I am going back now. I know I can do it, as I train a lot and I’m still in good physical condition. There’s no doubt for me that I can be there at the finish.”
Although the Safari is more of a sprint event than an endurance marathon these days, nothing can beat experience. And while he’s not going to break Bjorn Waldegard’s record of becoming the oldest overall WRC event winner (when he won the 1990 Safari aged 46), Zasada still has a chance of becoming the oldest class winner by quite some margin: at almost exactly double Waldegard’s age in 1990.
He’s already shown the determination of a champion. His promising athletic career came to a grinding halt in 1953 after he suffered an open fracture to his right leg while skiing in Zakopane in Poland. His leg was all set to be amputated but instead he opted to try save it, spending two years in rehab recovering. He came so close to never driving a car at all.
But instead, Zasada’s resolve paid off. In a 69-year rally career, he’s won 148 rallies and lifted the European title three times (in 1966, 1967 and 1971) as well as the Polish championship 11 times. Back then, there was no world championship, so the European rally winner was effectively considered to the champion of the world.
His fame was even more widespread as he was the only driver from Eastern Europe operating at the highest level, becoming a factory driver for prestigious teams such as BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. Even when he stopped driving, he never stopped working: he’s currently chairman of Grupa Zasada in Poland, which owns a series of car dealerships and estate agencies. And that all started when he opened up a small garage in Krakow in 1957, becoming the first company to use modern diagnostic equipment behind the Iron Curtain.
His pioneering spirit continues into his 90s, when he takes on the Safari Rally at the age when most people might force themselves to perhaps take on some light gardening. But he’s far from the only driver out there with big ambitions. Car 49 is another Pirelli-equipped Fiesta, driven by a local Kenyan, whose name happens to be McRae Kimathi. So not only does Sobieslaw have to beat the Safari Rally, but he also has to beat McRae…
If we learn anything from the pandemic it...