After an absence of nearly two decades, the Safari Rally returned to the World Rally Championship calendar last week. While a gruelling event by modern WRC standards, it’s not quite the marathon challenge it once was.
But going strong while the Safari featured solely as part of the African championship rather than on the world bill has been the East African Safari Classic Rally.
Run every other year since 2003, the Safari Classic evokes memories of the rally that was tougher than any other. And while being a classic affair, it still comes with its own challenges. That’s why many big name drivers have taken on the event in recent years, with Björn Waldegård and Stig Blomqvist among its winners over the last decade.
This year Ken Block and 2006 Junior World Rally Champion Patrik Sandell will be among the entrants for the November 1-9 event, both driving Tuthill Porsches.
While Block is new to the fold, owing to his recent split from Ford, Sandell’s been working alongside the classic Porsche specialists for the last few years – albeit in a setting rather different to Kenya – and their entry into the Safari Classic is the realization of a dream for the multi-X Games medallist.
“I’ve been working with Tuthill Porsche and Below Zero Ice Driving, that is their ice driving event that we co-host with them in Sweden, and we have been working together on that event for eight years, I think we’re going into the ninth season now this upcoming winter,” Sandell tells DirtFish.
“That’s been very successful over time and we’ve been able to grow the business with a record of 62 driving days on the lake, not this winter but the past winter, before COVID.
It’s been on my list of things I want to do in life and this year we were able to put it together so I’m super excited about itPatrik Sandell
“They have always done the Classic Safari Rally – or every second year – it’s been a big part of their business so I’ve been talking with Richard [Tuthill, director of Tuthill Porsche] for quite some time now that at some point we need to find a way for me to do the event because it’s been on my list of things I want to do in life and this year we were able to put it together so I’m super excited about it.”
Unlike the modern Safari, which follows the same template as other WRC rounds, the Safari Classic runs over nine days, with eight of those driving. It covers roughly 2000 kilometers (1243 miles) plus around 2400km (1491 miles) of road sections. In another throwback to the good old days there are no pacenotes either, with crews having to navigate with a prescribed roadbook.
“Definitely it’s a different approach to it,” Sandell says. “First of all there’s no pacenotes so you can really just drive on what you see and if you start to gamble on that.
“OK we have a roadbook as well that has marked out the biggest cautions and if there’s big holes in the road or if the road just disappears after the next crest, but that’s just a few elements on each stage so you need to work with your co-driver and read the road, read the terrain and basically just drive on what you see.
“The speed will be very different than [with] pacenotes – it’s like back in the old days when they didn’t have pacenotes so that will be the biggest challenge for me. If it would’ve been pacenotes it would’ve been very much easier to do the event but this will also be a great challenge.”
And then there’s the car. In recent years Sandell’s been most often behind the wheel of 600bhp rallycross cars, while the majority of his WRC outings came in Super 2000, or front-wheel-drive Super 1600 cars.
Tuthill’s famed classic 911 is a whole different world, but one that should be ideal for the Safari Classic, with the Porsche victorious on three of the last four runnings of the rally.
“It’s prepped all the possible ways according to the regulations by Tuthill Porsche and they are the best team and best car builders in the world when it comes to classic Porsches so I know I’m in really good hands,” Sandell says of the 911.
“I actually drove one car for them at one point a few years back when Björn Waldegård was supposed to drive the car in a rally called Midnight Sun Rally in Sweden, but he got sick so I got the opportunity to drive the car instead of him.
“I did that rally and we did it successfully, we won it, so that was like a good first memory behind the wheel of a Tuthill Porsche and now this is the second event. It’s a few years later but I still remember the feeling and I really enjoy driving the car.”
An epic event, and an equally epic car. But while Sandell is of course excited to get his competitive juices flowing once again, he says experiencing the Safari is what’s really appealing.
“It’s definitely an adventure and it’s not about being fast on the first stage and trying to show off your speed for everybody else, it’s more about being consistent and not doing any mistakes and keeping the car in one piece,” he says.
“But my co-driver Henrik Bolinder was one of my mechanics back in the day when I drove in WRC and JWRC and PWRC and all of that so he’s a world-class mechanic who after that carried on with his own business and is now a successful businessman. But he definitely has the skill to help me put that car back together whatever happens. That’s my little secret tool in the toolbox.”
Sandell, while massively appreciative of motorsport’s past, keeps a keen eye on its future as well and says that acknowledging both is part of what makes a professional driver today.
“I think why we drivers love the classic thing is that’s what we were watching in one way or the other when we were growing up and we were trying to become the next, for me Björn Waldegård or Stig Blomqvist or Colin McRae or whoever it was back in the day.
“So I think that the interest in the sport, and the interest around the classic cars, basically comes [because] that’s what we were looking up to when we were kids.
“And then I think motorsport athletes around the world are very good ambassadors because to come up in motorsport from grassroots level to a world class driver, you need to be so much more than just a talented driver nowadays.
“I think we learn quickly throughout the years, coming up as a junior driver, that you need to be more than a driver. You need to be an ambassador for your partners and for the sport and with that also a mindset comes that you need to be able to look a little bit into the future and see what partners and manufacturers want to do.
“And I think that’s why all the drivers are so keen now for the changes that are happening and the environmental aspect around the sport around the world.”
As for his own future, Sandell says there’s “no offers on the table” and while he’d be open to continuing in rallycross – where he scored four wins and a further 16 podiums between 2013 and 2019 racing in the US – a rallying future would be ideal.
“I don’t know really what the future will bring,” he admits. “My heart is still in rally, it’s always been in rally. Rallycross has been fun but if I had the opportunity to choose I’d love to do more rally.
“I’d love to do more rallycross as well, but rallying, that’s where I was born and raised and I really like the adventure that comes with rallying.”