The birth of the world’s toughest rally
The Safari Rally was born as the East African Coronation Rally in 1953 as a motoring event to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England who was on holiday in Kenya one year earlier when she learnt of the death of her father, King George VI.
If there is any single event which fired the imagination of Kenyans and became the most talked, most liked and enjoyed event then Safari Rally has no equal.
Sometime in January 1952, so the story goes on, the founder of the Safari Rally Eric Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and a friend Eric Tromp were sharing a drink in a bar at Limuru when an interesting motorsport topic cropped up.
There were odd hill climbs including the “Rolund the Mountain Trial “ and a racing track at Langa Langa in Nakuru . At some point, Cecil told this writer 17 years ago that they asked Vincent why he never competed at Langa Langa.
‘I can’t be bothered running around in circles. But if you could organise an event where we get into our cars, slam the doors and go halfway across Africa and back and the first car was the winner, then I will enter,” said Vincent.
“ He wanted something challenging, better than the October 1936 Nairobi-Johannesburg 4,800km road race which was won by C.L. “Fairly” Engelbrecht.”
Cecil recalled that this was the ultimate test for man and machine because he was the winner in 1946 in a Skoda. As a committed adventurer he was the man to actualise Vincent’s challenge in his capacity as the Chairman of the Competition Committee of the East African Automobile Association (EAAA).
Cecil was hooked and several challenging events were suggested, dissected and either trashed or shelved including a trip around the 68,000km Lake Victoria. Drivers would choose any direction with only two control points near Bukoba.
Vincent rejected the idea to avoid cheating, especially at the ferry crossing area. They needed a rally that would test the stamina of man and technical potency of a car. It would be exciting to rally and Cecil finally settled for rallying.
But when Cecil told the EAAA about his idea, the bosses firmly told him that they were there to serve the general motoring fraternity and not some “crazy ideas of cowboys.”
Not one to give up easily, he returned to the EAAA in February 1952 days after Queen Elizabeth of England received the news of his father’s death King George VI while lodging at the Treetops in Nyeri and ascended to the throne.
“Please do allow the motoring public in Kenya commemorates the Coronation of the Queen through a long-distance event,” Cecil pleaded with the EAAA.
Kenya was a British colony and EAAA, knowing the national importance of this request for the Crown relented.
However, he had to find the money and personnel. He managed to secure commercial sponsorship from the East African Standard newspaper and Shell Oil who gave 500 pounds each, a lot of money then. This gave birth to the Safari Rally, named Coronation Safari Rally.
FIRST CORONATION SAFARI RALLY
There were 15 finishers in the first 1953 Safari Rally in which Cecil was the winner. The next hurdle to clear was a suitable date of which they settled for the long Easter weekend.
Though never an economics student, Cecil settled on the “toughness slogan as a marketing tool, though the “Toughest Rally in the World”.
With more and more drivers competing and less and less finishing, word got around the world that there existed a very tough rally through relatives, coverage in local media which later reached the European motoring magazines.
The first Safari was 3,200 miles (5,160km) long in hostile country as Kenya was under the state of emergency because of the Mau Mau uprising agitated by Africans who wanted their grabbed land back.
FIRST OVERSEAS WINNER
European and later drivers from Asia started coming and for 19 years returned home empty-handed until 1972 when Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm in a Ford Escort RS1600 returned the Safari coveted trophy to Europe.
The following year FIA, then FISA included the Safari in the World Rally Championship (WRC). Mikola became an overnight sensation. Manufacturer teams’ beehived into Kenya. They were to be denied the following year by young Shekha Mehta who gave Datsun/Nissan their third victory after Edgar Hermann and Hans Schuller in 1970/71 in a Datsun 1600SSS.
Previously the Safari was dominated by European makes with VW Beetle in the 50s before Ford, Mercedes and Peugeot ruled the roost in the 60s.
There was one notable driver of Asian descent, Joginder Singh, winner in 1965 in Volvo PV544 navigated by his brother Jaswant Singh. He became a national hero and household name, aka Simba ya Kenya.
Mehta won in 1973 in a Datsun 240Z, the year the Safari skipped Uganda because of political turmoil following a successful military coup by dictator Id Amin Dada, who, however, rubbished Kenya’s “misplaced sense of Mehta’s ownership”.
“As far as am concerned Mehta is a Ugandan,” he said. FIA President Jean Todt navigated Timo Makinen to third position in a Peugeot 504.
The Safari was renamed Kenya Safari Rally in 1974 after Tanzania whose political relationship with Kenya was beginning to wane opted out. Joginder won that year and in 1976 in a Colt Lancer.
Knowing they had to conquer Africa comprehensively, European resorted to using local drivers to develop their cars and give them one-off complete support. The first such person was Vic Preston Junior, whose father Vic Preston Senior dominated in the 60s.
Junior finished third in 1972 in a works Ford Escort RS1600 and repeated similar feats in 1978 and 1981. He always out-paced the best before something happened.
He was always on pole position and sampled drives from Lancia, Nissan, Porsche, and Mercedes factory team. Others were Joginder, Mehta, Mike Kirkland, Ian Duncan and Patrick Njiru.
Factory and European drivers continued producing mixed results winning in 1975, ’77 and 78 before Mehta produced four back to back victories (1979-82). For the next 12 years, Kenyan drivers played second fiddle until Duncan’s 1994 victory in a works Toyota Celica.
This was the last victory by a Kenyan and maybe forever as works teams’ domination became absolute. So big was the gap that it was only Duncan who could take on the best, finishing third in 1993, ’96 and’97 in works Celicas.
There was one exceptional case though: Reno Abalone of Finland who tried to win the Safari for 23 years without success. “Maybe it was a curse, a thahu of a medicine man, a Mudu Mugo,” wrote John Davenport in the glossy Safari Rally book of 2003.
As a final epithet for the Safari, no Kenyan finished it the 2002 Safari, the last WRC in Kenya.
As the WRC Promoter plans to produce 25 to 30 live coverage of 2020 Safari Rally,
Notable milestones of the Safari are;
1: With Alex Noon, a famous aviator at the time and Eric Cecil flew and gave the first LIVE air to ground commentaries through (Kenya Army) Forces Broadcasting Services in Nairobi (call and wireless).
Competition by price into four categories of entries on the basis that “you got what you paid for.”
Competition numbers on the roof of the vehicles so that they could be identified from the air.
Cecil was conscious that competing in rallies costs money and many could not afford even the relatively small cost of that time. To help solve this problem, Cecil requested the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) in England, governing body of motorsport in East Africa, to be allowed advertising on competing vehicles. The request was denied but on subsequent telephone conversation chairman to chairman, Eric Cecil emphasised the need for some assistance and went ahead of his own accord.
In 1980-92 Philip Morris, the manufacturers of Marlboro Cigarettes became the first fully title sponsor of the Safari Rally.
In November 1, 2017, the Kenya Government through Gazette Notice Number 181 legalised the WRC Safari Rally Project to return the Safari Back in the WRC by 2020.
In 2018 Kenya formally applied and was granted rights by the WRC Promoter to return in the World Rally Championship since 2002. The Promoter’s Agreement was signed in Paris, France by the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage Peter Kaberia and WRC Promoter Managing Director Oliver Ciesla in the presence of the President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Jean Todt on June 21.
In July 17-19 Kenya hosted a successful FIA Candidate Event.
In September 27 2019 the FIA returned the Safari Rally in the World Rally Championship.