The event Group B’s supercars couldn’t crack

The four-wheel drive reign started late on the Safari Rally. David Evans investigates Toyota’s Eighties domination in Kenya

Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 16-20 04 1987

Group B comes along and changes everything, right? Kind of. But not quite everything. There was one event which didn’t exactly embrace the revolution. The Safari.

Group B, as we know, was all about forced induction and drive to all four wheels. And that worked from Auckland to Washington, through the Alps and the Andes. But it didn’t work in Kenya. For the years that framed Group B between 1983 and 1986, no four-wheel drive car won the African classic.

It wasn’t until Group A arrived in 1987 that Hannu Mikkola changed Safari history, becoming the first four-wheel drive winner. He guided the hefty 200 quattro to victory over the sister car of Audi team-mate Walter Röhrl – but even then rear-wheel drive wasn’t completely forgotten as Lars Erik-Torph wheeled a three-liter Toyota Supra to third.

Here’s how the years played out.


Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 30-04 04 1983

Ari Vatanen's Opel Ascona won an attritional 1983 Safari

Audi’s first foray to the Safari went well initially. Eleven years on from becoming the first European winner of the event, Mikkola became the first driver to lead in a four-wheel drive car. The quattro didn’t last. The water pump failed. Michéle Mouton was hard on his heels and took over at the top in another Audi, before she lost a rear wheel and suffered differential problems.  

Five-time winner Shekhar Mehta stepped forward, but retired his Nissan 240RS with a broken crankshaft. The all-wheel drive threat wasn’t gone completely as Vic Preston Jr was at the wheel of a quattro for the first time.

He moved 33 minutes clear at the front of the field, but slipped back with turbo failure then crashed trying to fight back. That left Timo Salonen’s Nissan very much in the clear and cantering towards the line, until the camshaft broke.

Ari Vatanen became the event’s sixth leader. He didn’t drop it and delivered Opel the perfect send-off for its Ascona 400. 


Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 19-23 04 1984

Björn Waldegård made the most of conditions to win in 1984

This really was the stuff of dreams. You simply don’t go to the Safari and win it for the first time. Not unless you’re Toyota. Just like the new incarnation of the team did in 2021, so Ove Andersson’s squad did 40 years ago.

It had been seven years since Björn Waldegård’s only previous Safari win and, in the face of strong Audi opposition, few gave the Toyota much hope. Like last year, Mikkola was quickest out of the blocks and led before engine and transmission trouble dropped him to third.

Step forward Waldegård. Key to Toyota’s success was the hope for a dry event and, despite running on a late Easter date which placed it into the rainy season, the rally was rain-free. And the Celica Twincam Turbo didn’t miss a beat. Mikkola’s team-mates Mouton and Blomqvist were both hobbled by rotor arm failures.


Safari Rally Nairobi (EAK) 04-08 04 1985

Toyota's 2WD car won again in 1985

Talking of dreams, this was the year of Juha Kankkunen’s dream result on the Safari. Competing in Kenya for the first time, the Finn knew victory was going to be tough against an Audi which was reckoned to be primed and ready for its maiden Safari success. The German’s effort was halved ahead of the event, with four cars becoming just a brace of quattro Sports for Mikkola and Blomqvist.

The short Audi had evolved with improved suspension and a new six-speed gearbox for the event. Toyota’s top speed for the Celica TCT of 135mph had been thought to be enough – until the quattro was geared for 150mph. But still, victory eluded Ingolstadt.

Tweaks to the transmission caused gearbox failure on both cars. Blomqvist retired while Mikkola soldiered on but then succumbed to an engine problem. 

This year was, of course, the first for Peugeot’s 205 T16. Timo Salonen’s car was the only one of three at the finish… in sixth place. Ari Vatanen had gone out with headgasket failure while Bruno Saby crashed.

And through it all, Kankkunen just kept on pedalling and driving as slowly as he dared across another largely dry route. And then, astonishingly, he won. On his debut. 


Safari Rally Kenia, Nairobi 29-03 02-04 1986

The Celica Twincam Turbo completed its hat-trick in 1986

The focus of this event was very much on a two versus four-wheel drive battle – but Toyota didn’t feature in that bigger picture. Neither did the absent Audi team. This one was supposedly about Lancia-Peugeot. Sadly for the Parisians, neither 205 would feature strongly at the finish.

Five-time winner Shekhar Mehta was drafted into the squad by Jean Todt – but not event the Kenyan’s vast experience could overcome and engine which refused to restart after he’d stopped to change a puncture.

Team-mate Kankkunen looked a good bet for a second consecutive victory, until, blinded by another car’s dust, he hit a bank and damaged a driveshaft and brake disc. Fifth place beckoned. 

Lancia’s hopes of stealing a march in the 1986 makes’ race went largely south with engine failure for Miki Biasion and a big accident for Vic Preston Jr. Markku Alén battled hard and drove superbly to land third place.

But the big winner was Toyota. Again, in the absence of rain, the Waldegård and the Celica Twincam Turbo was the combination to beat. Erik-Torph was second and only a broken brake disc on the third car of Erwin Weber stood in the way of a podium lockout for the Cologne-based outfit. 

If you’re wondering if any other rounds of the world championship came close to withstanding total traction throughout Group B, there are two standouts: Corsica, for obvious reasons (it’s asphalt and generally offers better grip).

Bruno Saby’s 1986 win was the only time four driveshafts crossed the French finish line first. And elsewhere in Africa, Stig Blomqvist’s 1984 Ivory Coast win in a quattro Sport ruined Toyota’s hopes of more success for the so-called whistling pig.