Safari Rally

The Safari Rally: Return of the toughest leg of the WRC

It is exactly 61 days to the WRC Safari Rally slated to be hosted on Kenyan soil after an 18-year hiatus. Kenya was among a host of countries including Japan and New Zealand to have their WRC status reinstated, earning inclusion into the WRC calendar. Interestingly, Kenya was the only African country to submit a bid to return to the WRC.

Announcing the 2020 calendar, world governing body of motorsport FIA said: “The addition of Kenya’s iconic Safari Rally, one of global motorsport’s legendary contests, means the WRC returns to Africa, the world’s second largest continent by size, for the first time since 2002.” Kenya was set to host the second half of the WRC circuit from July 16-19, 2020. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a halt in all sporting activities in the country, the event was pushed to June 24-27, 2021.It is the first time the WRC has included six continents: Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Australia in its 48-year history.

For motorsport lovers in Kenya, the mere mention of the Safari Rally evokes emotions of excitement. The thrill for the neck-breaking speeds and meticulous navigation of sharp bends and corners leaving a cloud of dust always a spectacle amongst the lovers of the sport in the country. The Safari Rally always kept me glued to the TV to catch a highlights glimpse of the event.

The Safari Rally traces its roots back in 1953, incepted as the East African Coronation Rally, a motoring event to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II who a year earlier had holidayed in Kenya when she learnt of the death of her father, King George VI. The idea birthed by Eric Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and a friend Eric Tromp while enjoying their drink at a bar in Limuru. Cecil emerged winner in the inaugural Safari Rally event that covered a stretch of 5160kms in a hostile environment since Kenya was under a state of emergency then. With more drivers competing and less finishing, word got around through media outlets of the tough and treacherous nature of the Safari Rally and its course. This got it christened “Toughest rally in the world”.

As word got around the globe, more European and Asian drivers started competing but for 19 years, none got a chance to be on the winners’ podium until 1972 when Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm in a Ford Escort RS1600 clinched the top position taking the much-coveted trophy back to Europe. The Safari Rally had by then received a lot of fanfare and plaudits from across the motoring world earning a spot in the WRC in 1973. The Safari rally would traverse Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Some of the most notable Kenyans that graced and won the WRC Safari Rally include Joginder Singh colloquial Simba wa Kenya who won in 1965,1974 and 1976 and became a household name and an idol to many. Others included Ian Duncan who won the event in 1994 and Mehta who won in 1973. Patrick Njiru was the first highly placed indeginious Kenyan finishing 4th in the 1994 event. These names have stood test of time and are highly regarded in the Kenyan rally scene. They are legends of the sport.

Even though the event will remain closed to spectators due to Covid-19, it is a big step in the right direction for the country. The Safari Rally is well known for being the toughest rally and this was evident in the weekend during the Equator rally. Drivers lamented about wet and rocky roads. This has set a centre stage for an epic rally that promises to be both enticing and challenging in equal measure. Experienced rally drivers that will grace the event should hence brace for a tough and bruising battle that will test their grit and push them to their limits.

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