Our favorite Safari Rally memories

The DirtFish team shares their fondest memories from years gone by on the African classic

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Ever since DirtFish began covering the World Rally Championship comprehensively at the beginning of 2020, the team has always enjoyed rally week. That anticipation of what might happen next and the thrill of competition is hard to beat.

But it’s fair to say none of the team have been as excited as today. This week marks the return of Safari Rally Kenya – and DirtFish can’t wait!

Not seen on the WRC calendar since 2002, the Safari is one of the most iconic motorsport events in history. Despite the fact this year’s instalment will be slightly less arduous than the previous affairs, it is still expected to be a huge challenge for the current crop of drivers while of course the roaming wildlife will make it an aesthetic dream.

But before we explore more specifically what we can look forward to on this year’s event, we asked our team to share their favorite Safari moments and memories – whether that be a personal experience or something they remember from competition.

Here’s what they came up with.

David Evans

DirtFish senior staff writer

Tommi Makinen / Seppo Harjanne - 1996 WRC Safari Rally

I had so much to say here. So much to talk about. There were Piero Sodano’s stories of co-driving Sandro Munari in a Lancia Stratos on one of the wettest rallies on record in 1977. Or the time Lancia landed its service plane on the main road to Mombasa in an effort to deliver more parts to the Stratos.

Or Derek Dauncey’s brilliant recollection of Tommi Mäkinen’s unexpected 1996 win.

Or the.. or the… the list and the stories just go on and on.

But then I stopped reading and decided just to tell you about my own memories. I only did one Safari, the last one. It was brilliant. By 2002, I’d done a bit of travelling, been around the world, done New Zealand and Australia, the Middle and Far East. I thought I’d seen it all. I’d seen nothing.

Africa is different. My Nissan hire car came with three inflated tires and a slipping clutch. Navigating the centre of Nairobi, map on my lap, surrounded by a life and a world I knew absolutely nothing of, terrified the life out of me.

Going around a grassy area in the center of what remains one of the biggest roundabouts I’ve ever driven around, I was sitting in traffic enjoying the smell of my own gently baking clutch, when a vulture of some sort swooped down not 10ft away. It lifted a snake from the grass and flew away.

I laughed. Relaxed. Beckoned a taxi, told him where my hotel was and followed him.

The sights, sounds and smells of what are coming this week will be like nothing a generation of drivers have ever seen.

Africa. You never forget it.

George Donaldson

Former WRC team manager and sporting director

1986 Safari Rallycopyright:Mcklein

The Safari Rally was pretty well still an old-fashioned ‘road race’ up to and including 1995. Can you imagine that now? It was like something from the 1930s! I have the image of seeing rally cars neck-and-neck into the start control of a section on the first night in 1986 going into the Rukanga section south of Taita hills.

Bjorn Waldegård in our Toyota Celica and Juha Kankkunen in his Peugeot 205 T16 were on the same minute, but Bjorn was in front. They started at the same time but in tandem. It was imperative to be first to the control but there were 99 miles to the next fuel stop and basically sections all the way.

We pulled a flanker, making it look like we were going to change all the tires plus we had practiced fast fueling, so as Bjorn pulled in we staged a show as Juha arrived to undertake the same task. As the Peugeot mechanics pulled off the wheels we simply filled the car with fuel – I think we may have changed the rear tires but in any case a short service – which allowed Bjorn an easy first to the control and the prize of a dust-free run through the night.

As they approached, Bjorn was still leading but most amazingly Juha was still right on his tail. It was like that all night George Donaldson

Five hours later we met the cars at Kajiado emergency service just as dawn arrived, a three and a half hour drive for us the short way round, and as the cars streaked into view over the veldt, we spotted them about five miles away. As they approached, Bjorn was still leading but most amazingly Juha was still right on his tail. It was like that all night. Barely a minute separated them after about 400 miles of sections. It was the most awesome sight.

Can you imagine what that was like to drive? The sections included Taita hills, Rukanga and the long runs through the Chulya hills, a run up Pipeline road and then over the Kajiado where they met us again. We topped off about 30 liters of fuel and checked the tires. They were good and Bjorn was on his way. That was the first night of a five-day event with one night in bed for us.

In 1994 I got to pretty well drive the entire route in a rally car (test/recce car). It was for a six-day photoshoot with two cars. We had a helicopter, a film crew and a Reinhard Klein. I had no pacenotes at all and we basically followed Ian Duncan in the first car who kindly created a ‘dust marker’ for us before any killer unseen hazards. Think about that… not risky at all!

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The one thing you don’t do in a rally team as support staff is damage a car. That is a one-way ticket home! I still had fun, believe me, and was heartened that Ian and David Williamson in the first car were doing timed runs at the sections so at the end of each we effectively got to check our time against this. I will happily say that Ian and Dave were reasonably impressed by my pace (no pacenotes, remember).

Dave worked out that my pace would have been easily good enough (if trouble-free no time loss) for a top-five position. I never checked myself as I love the myth! I do confess to having a few seriously big moments, one beginning at 220km/h on asphalt.

As I matured in the Toyota team to coordinator and then team manager, I was banished from the event and into the comms aircraft. The team could never get a reliable relay station so a human was the best bet. It was brilliant.


Robert Reid's lasting love of the Safari Rally

The 2001 World Rally Champion co-driver shares his memories of the toughest event of them all

In daylight hours you got to see the cars on more than one occasion, albeit from three or four miles away (up). It was a really rewarding role as you were an integral part of the strategy calls to the drivers. The role had ended tragically for my first boss in Toyota in 1987 as light twin-engined aircraft are perhaps a bit more prone to failure or errors. I can certainly relay three or four ‘nasties’ but I guess I got lucky. It does not overshadow the memory of the role I got to play contributing in ‘controlling the game’ that was the Safari Rally!

I must now turn attention to Colin McRae and Richard Burns, who were both masters of this event. I remember on their first visits chatting to them about the event when they came to visit our Toyota workshop in Nairobi for a cup of tea. I recall their bemusement with my affection for the rally.

I’m happy to say they became great fans of the Safari and exercised a good degree of mastery of it too, both becoming winners. It was super that both drivers got a run at the longer classic events before the change in 1996 to a much shorter format, although it was just as challenging with similar-length sections.

1998 Safari Rally copyright: McKlein

What’s always remained is the beauty of the place. I swear you could place yourself in any country in the world at some time while in Kenya! It is the breadbasket of Africa. Very fertile, great variance in altitudes, a glacier and a second very spectacular snow capped mountain on the border with Tanzania – that is Kilimanjaro of course.

You could be in the fine forests of Finland up north in Kenya, one hour later you could be in the Scottish highlands or later again the rolling Border country between Scotland and England, and all of this in one day. Plus, you could cross the equator six or seven times on a rally day. Not to mention the incredible tea plantations up at Kericho which are mind-bogglingly green and uniform.

I watched one of Ninni Russo’s many helicopter crashes near there myself.. happily they all walked away. That makes it a positive memory! There are lots more but best regaled with friends around a log fire in a pub. Now, whose round is it?

Colin McMaster

McKlein photographer

Burns, Safari

The Safari is the rally that’s brought me the most adventures and diverse experiences in my 27-year career following rallying. From the sunrises to the sunsets, I’ve photographed rally cars slithering through black-cotton-soil, ploughing through fesh-fesh dust, and negotiating rock-strewn ravines.

The 2002 edition was a special event for me as I followed the rally aboard the TV helicopter as my taxi. I remember being dropped off in one remote location with cameraman Kevin Vernall and we convinced ourselves that the animal tracks we could see were lion or leopard paw prints. I didn’t mind because I knew I could outrun Kevin.

Having survived that, back in the heli we filmed Colin McRae driving mile-after-mile on the fields beside one stage, as he realized it was smoother than the road. Straight after that we returned to the Suswa Service Park where my good friend Richard Burns got his three-wheeled Peugeot 206 beached on the entrance.

Everyone knows what happened to him next. However, this was one of few moments in my life where I put my job aside. With my cameras down I went to console my mate. I gave him a big hug and just reminded him that he’d already won two Safaris and he knew how to drive-to-win in Kenya. Later that night he showed me how ‘to drink’ in Kenya, when we downed many a Dawa cocktail on a big night out at Nairobi’s Carnivore restaurant.

On a happier note, back in 1998 Burnsie joined my business partner Reinhard Klein and I for a week-long holiday on Lamu island, straight after the rally. He had the winner’s trophy with him! Not bad for a 27-year-old, ginger-haired lad from Oxford.

“Ain’t no fun being ginger”, he used to say. All that was about to change. This was the era of Jaques Villeneuve and in Lamu, Richard decided to dye his hair blonde, just like the F1 driver. He’d bought a cheap and nasty coloring kit and when he put the solution into his hair things started to go wrong.

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The peroxide began burning his scalp, so he washed it out, but way too soon according to the instructions. Ginger became bright orange, like a carrot. The next step was to shave it all off. This time my camera stayed on!

Luke Barry

DirtFish deputy editor

There are plenty of feel-good, underdog stories from Safari Rally folklore and plenty of outstanding successes too (Tommi Mäkinen in 1996 and Colin McRae in 1999 immediately spring to mind).

Gilles Panizzi’s entertaining (with hindsight!) tirade towards a privateer at the end of a test in 2000 – after he was held up in his dust – that promoted one of his famous whistle moments and copped him a $50,000 fine also deserves a mention; as does Škoda’s first – and only – WRC podium in 2001 on the event with Armin Schwarz.

Kresta 50 action

But my fondest Safari memories are from a year later and the most recent instalment: 2002. Perhaps recency bias – if we can say that about an event that happened 19 years ago! – plays a factor here (and my far more esteemed colleagues have already mentioned bits about this rally) but it was an event that had it all. And by it all, I really mean umpteen bizarre moments that ultimately characterize the Safari.

From Richard Burns’ infamous service park struggle when he and Robert Reid tried everything in their power to release their Peugeot 206 WRC from some soft sand that had swallowed it meters from their service tent, to Markko Märtin and Michael Park heading out for a loop without their pacenotes (never ideal, but particularly bad in Kenya); the 2002 edition was certainly action-packed.

And then there was the bizarre situation of McRae chasing Mäkinen – literally – through the African wilderness. A damper on Mäkinen’s Subaru had failed and McRae’s Focus had caught it. But radio communication between Mäkinen’s Impreza and the Subaru team had failed, so Tommi wasn’t aware of a Scottish tornado closing in on him.


When McRae traded flair for care

David Evans recalls McRae's tremendous 2002 Safari Rally win

“I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry,” he offered as McRae approached him at the end of the stage.

In the end it was a moot point for McRae who was as inventive as he was fast – taking unique lines through some of the corners for the best grip and speed.

It was McRae’s final win in the WRC, and we thought it could be the final Kenyan event in the WRC too. The 2021 victor will thankfully begin a new chapter of African magic.

What do you remember most from the Safari Rally? Drop us a comment below and let us know.