Remember when World Rally Cars broke down? If that particular memory is beyond you, you probably weren’t in Kenya the last time the World Rally Championship visited Nairobi in 2002.
The last WRC-qualifying Safari Rally was a proper car-breaker as well as being the first in the history of a rally first held 50 years earlier to run entirely in the southern hemisphere (previously it had skipped both sides of the equator).
Eighteen years ago, the Safari had already undergone significant change. The challenge was just as intense, but it was shorter and, apparently, less taxing on the cars. Conversely, tighter technical regulations meant less opportunity to build the sort of Africa-specific cars we’d seen in previous years.
Tommi Mäkinen’s Subaru led through the opening day, with the Finn trading times with Colin McRae’s Ford Focus. The Finn was just 16s up after almost three hours’ action in four competitive sections.
Saturday’s second loop of the same roads around Suswa, north-east of Nairobi, was where the going got tough. Mäkinen was the highest profile casualty with damper failure on the first test. That departure left McRae out front with a decent – but not handsome – advantage over top Peugeot man Harri Rovanperä.
Rovanperä’s team-mate Marcus Grönholm hadn’t made it out of the first section before the engine on his 206 WRC failed. He returned to service long enough to declare the Safari a “s**t rally.” Before studying the Finnair timetable north.
McRae’s team-mate Carlos Sainz retired with no oil pressure, the turbo on Petter Solberg’s Impreza WRC2002 lunched itself and then there were the service park casualties.
Like, genuine casualties of the service park… The fesh fesh was deep on the way into service, it exposed and consumed any battle-weary motor emerging from the stages. Kenneth Eriksson’s Škoda Octavia WRC was the first victim when a gearbox failure left him bogged down in the dust.
Richard Burns was the highest profile casualty. He and Robert Reid were forced to abandon their 206 WRC after doing everything humanly possible to dig it out of the talcum powder-like surface. Look out for Reid’s words on that heartbreaker of a retirement only on DirtFish this Sunday.
Back to the front and McRae’s grip on a possible third Safari win was getting stronger by the section. The gap to Rovanperä hovered around the three-minute mark which, given the 50 and 60-mile competitive tests, might have been considered short of a comfort zone. Certainly, the Finn was only a puncture or two off the front, but Colin kept his cool. And maintained his own speed, resisting the temptation to force the pace and build the lead.
Victory ensured McRae made history by becoming the first driver to win 25 WRC rounds. And there’s no denying, that slow-but-fast win was one where the 1995 champion was at his calculating and consistent best.
Rovanperä’s result was also one of his best. Despite 206s falling around him – leaving charismatic Peugeot leader Corrado Provera to pull ever harder on his ever-present cigar – Harri was on superb form.
Citroën’s Thomas Rådström scored a solid third, close to 20 minutes behind McRae. The winner was the only driver to register a time south of eight hours after three days’ competition.
Those were the days…