The return of the Safari

The legendary Safari Rally is on a mission to return to WRC for 2020. But it won’t be Safari as we know it

The whole year we have been reading news about Kenya making plans to return the legendary Safari Rally to the WRC Calendar. The latest news see them making an agreement of a candidate event for 2019 in order for a 2020 WRC run. Safari was dropped from WRC in 2003 due to issues with safety and government funding and there hasn’t been an African WRC event since then.

The classic Safari

In the old days Safari was a long and rough rally, with up to 5000 km of running distance. It differed from most WRC events by not having special stages but just high-speed road sections with the allocated times so short that practically everyone received always road penalties for being late from time controls. Thus, the race was decided on who had the least road penalties.

Servicing the car would also create road penalties making the rally even more of a team effort with the speed of the mechanics also counting in the rally result. Sometimes the car would break down amid a stage and the team would drive to fix the stricken car on location.

Like mentioned, Safari consisted only of road sections. Thus they weren’t closed from public traffic. Although the traffic was very light in those days on the African desert roads, it was still always a risk to have an unlucky collision with the odd truck or bus. The competitor cars were equipped with additional lights in order to help the civilians notice them better.

Wearing a helmet wasn’t obligatory either. Some competitors still chose to wear one for the sake of their safety, although that made it a lot hotter and tougher to sit in the car for the long days without breaks.

Special built cars

Safari saw the cars being set up quite differently, including additional bumpers, snorkels and larger fuel tanks. The teams also used a considerable amount of time to test for the Safari, with allocated specialist test drivers spending a good part of the year only for Safari.

Toyota Celica in Safari spec
Toyota Celica in Safari spec

Sometimes the teams even brought special cars for the rally. Lancia trusted on the RWD 037 for the 1986 Safari instead of the brand new 4WD Delta S4 and Toyota did similarly with the Supra Turbo in 1989 substituting the fragile Celica.

True endurance test

The status of Safari was much higher in the 70’s, since it truly was a rally that could be won on a durable car that would need little servicing, as opposed to other events which were more reliant fast hands of a driver. Thus it had high marketing value for car manufacturers.

It wasn’t until the Group B era in the 80’s that this started slowly to change. The 4WD Audis and Peugeots had so many faults that they never managed to win the Safari. Instead, the more traditionally built RWD Toyota Celica TCT which wasn’t that successful elsewhere, took most of the wins in the African rally of that era.

In many occasions we saw drivers close to retiring from WRC but still contesting the Safari. As late as 1990 Björn Waldegård won the event for Toyota, not having started much WRC rounds in the previous years. Another notable example is Rauno Aaltonen – having rallied as early as the 50’s – still claiming runner-up position in the 1984 Safari.

Safari Rally for today’s WRC

Looking at these facts, it’s obvious that the classic Safari couldn’t be just simply thrown in on the calendar. The 5000 km event would include more rally-speed driving than the whole 2018 WRC season has special stages!

Building the special cars for the event would be impossible for the teams with smaller budgets and limited test days. The driving and its televising would be different with the drivers not fighting for tenths but minutes. It’s also clear that the more complicated cars of today cannot be fixed in the middle of the jungle with just a service car showing up.

Instead, the 2020 event will most likely be similar to other rallies of the season with a single service park clover leaf format and about 300 km of special stages. To keep some of the endurance element, most of the stages could be of the longer variety with less stages in total – something like Tour de Corse has been doing lately.

The WRC Promoter Oliver Ciesla said in a recent interview that the rally would be run on closed roads, making it “a modern-era Safari”. This is the least they can do, as even closed roads can not prevent always civilian cars from entering the stages, as shown in the recent ERC Cyprus Rally.

The talk of Safari returning has stirred up various discussions. People seem to hope it returns the way it was, and think it would be watered down by modernizing. I understand that people like nostalgy, but the times have changed. Even Jean Todt admitted this, by saying “what was possible 30 years ago is not acceptable anymore”.

In fact, my idea would be to ditch the Safari name, as nostalgic as it would be. I think it’s positive to have an African event in the WRC Calendar, but maybe it should be just called Rally Kenya, to get rid of the weight of the past?

The 2018 event

Safari Rally has been run constantly although outside WRC. This year’s event was already building up for the WRC return, but still on smaller scale. The route consisted of nine stages spread over two days, making up 200 km in total. Some of the stages look super fast on the map with straights stretching up for kilometres.

This compilation onboard shows the nature of the roads, usually very narrow, sometimes not even a proper road but just a track. Numerous bumps and watersplashes make the drivers slow down their pace even if the road would be straight. This is a true representation of the classic Safari challenge – you need to know when to go flat out and when to take it very easy.

The fastest stage of the rally became Elementaita 2, with Onkar Rai’s Skoda Fabia R5 generating an average speed of 120 km/h. Most of the stages were had also average speeds over 100 km/h. Current rough rallies of the WRC calendar are typically below that with the slowest stages like Tula in Sardegna or El Condor in Argentina even slower than 80 km/h.

Elementeita 2018
SS3 Elementeita of Safari Rally 2018. Total length 28 km, with many straights over a km long.

Thus, I’m not convinced by the 2018 stage material – the current WRC cars with their greater power and suspension travel would fly over these stages, especially with factory backing and drivers going for split seconds. I hope they can find something more technical for the 2019 candidate event, without artificial chicanes. I would love to see WRC return to the rough roads of Africa, whatever the name of the event will be.

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