Sunrise over the Great Rift Valley is something you never forget, as the lights get switched on to reveal one of the most extraordinarily colourful places on planet earth. It’s an abiding memory of the Safari Rally.
And it’s not just a visual thing. The dawn chorus along the road from Nairobi to Narok is an intimidating, but awe-inspiring thing. And the aroma of Africa, the smell of the petrichor as the rain hits the parched ground, the wood fires taking the edge of a typically cold night across the plains or the delicious fruitiness as the Rukera Farm coffee percolates.
It’s sensational. Even more so when a giraffe stops nibbling on a tree long enough to look down with a watchful and wary look from a big, brown and slightly sleepy eye.
These are just the sort of occasions when you can’t help but feel incredibly alive.
Sitting typing this, it’s hard not to hanker after being in the middle of that glorious continent. Unfortunately quarantine complications meant being on the ground for round six wasn’t an option. If we couldn’t be in Kenya, I definitely wouldn’t be anywhere other than right here.
Here is Dovenby Hall, just outside Cockermouth, Cumbria.
Here is the headquarters of M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Malcolm Wilson’s mission control.
The morning commute’s shorter than if we were in Africa, but we’ve got our own wildlife with deer, hares and no shortage of sheep on show. And the coffee’s covered too – if you’re ever in these parts, head directly for Merienda, a hunter breakfast and an exceptional Americano.
But the best bit is setting our studio up in a workshop which crafted cars and championships for Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Marcus Grönholm and Sébastien Ogier. Our discipline’s history is worn on the walls here, but it’s the cars that still bring the past back to the present.
As I sit here working on these words, Wilson has joined us for some chatter… from the driving seat of the car which changed everything for M-Sport: the Ford Focus WRC McRae drove to victory on the 1999 Safari.
Africa might be backdropped by jaw-dropping vistas, but we’ve got S9 FMC and a brand new Adrien Fourmaux Fiesta Rally2 behind us. I know, tough choice…
As well as the most astonishing hospitality (Mrs W’s fish pie starter rivals any appetiser anywhere in the world), it’s been fascinating to watch world champions at work. Wilson and M-Sport team principal Richard Millener have been Dovenby-based for this one – as has much of the team.
Travelling to the event would have come at the cost of precious preparation time for Rally Estonia, with the same cars competing this week needing to be turned around, readied for round seven and out of the door on the same day the team would have emerged from their London hotel rooms on day 10 of quarantine.
Safari Rally Kenya’s loss in terms of M-Sport’s management is our gain. The insight Wilson and Millener offered has been invaluable and on another level to what Colin Clark and I could manage.
This week has also provided a stunning insight into the future of M-Sport. Colin and I were up here 12 months ago and made a series of videos (find those on our YouTube channel) with Wilson about the past, present and future of his company. Last time, the Evaluation Centre wasn’t quite finished, there was still some tinkering to be done on the 1.7-mile test track and the glorious public-facing showroom was more still more room than show.
How all of that’s changed. We’re putting together another video walkthrough with Malcolm to demonstrate just what a world-beating facility he’s put together. A good few years on from visiting Maranello for the first time, Wilson’s delivered on his vision and his dream. Northern England looks to have the edge over northern Italy.
We’re surrounded by a depth of knowledge, experience and ability that’s quite breathtaking at time. The Wilson family is entirely immersed in rallying.
Matthew Wilson walked across the workshop on Thursday afternoon, carrying boots and gloves. He’d been shaking down a roaring Bentley GT3 car at the airfield. Could we catch up with him tomorrow?
“I’m away this weekend,” was the reply.
Anywhere nice? Maybe a family trip to Ambleside to see Beatrix Potter’s house?
“Pikes Peak. I’m back Monday.”
M-Sport and the Wilson family operate on a different level and the opportunity to share that and – hopefully – bring you some of that has been a genuine honor and a privilege this week.