The East African Safari Classic Rally 2019

Another edition of the Safari Classic Rally is currently in progress and, as always, I’m running the Tuthill Porsche media feeds. With ten cars under its wing, the team is enjoying a decent event. Yesterday was rally day seven and three Tuthill-built 911s finished the day in the top three positions: a fortunate position after thousands of kilometres of competitive rallying on this famously brutal contest.

The entry list for 2019 was smaller than previous editions; fewer than thirty cars entered and only twenty-two cars started the rally. The lower entry numbers can be ascribed to a number of factors, including cost, perceived risk and alternatives. There were also some issues in management and communications during and after the 2017 edition, following the death of one of the managing partners in a mid-event car crash. The fallout cast a traumatic shadow over what had otherwise been another tough but exciting Safari.

Putting things right took a lot of hard work. After 2017, the organisers put considerable effort into modernising its processes, with a major personnel shakeup and big changes in transparency and stewarding. As was promised in discussions and competitor workshops through 2018, the changes delivered a much-improved structure for 2019 and the organisers – headed by a new Clerk of Course – have done a magnificent job this year.

The Safari Classic entry list is restricted to cars from the glory days of Safari: 2wd non-turbo cars pre-1986 that conform to FIA historic regulations. Many cars have won the event, with Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts, 240Zs and 911s all down as previous winners.

The rally takes place over vast swathes of East Africa. While the event is run entirely on open public roads, the logistics including car shipping, accommodation, route mapping, marshalling, medical helicopters etc are huge and it is not cheap to compete. Entry fees for international drivers including car shipping and three twin hotel rooms for the rally duration are set at $34,000, with local entries costing $12,500. Add the cost of car prep before and re-prep after, the cost of hiring support and bringing in parts and the cost of putting up team and supporters and the costs soon soar. This is not a poor man’s sport.

Kenya has a highly active national championship and locals stage another Safari-style rally earlier in the year. Subsidised by wealthy competitors, the earlier rally has lower entry fees and no participant support, so drivers sort out their own shipping, accommodation and so on. If one only wants to rally against local friends and rivals, the smaller event might fit the bill. As most club rally folk do not have the resources to refurbish a rally car twice in six months, this leads to inevitable consequences for the big Safari’s entry list.

Safari Classic entries may have been down this year but the calibre of entrant remained pretty strong. Six-time Kenyan champion, Ian Duncan, was entered in a new Rover SD1 build. Three Kabras Sugar 911 entries included the triple Safari Rally winner, Baldev Chager.

Three Team Tidö Race4Health 911s included the former world rally champion and 2015 Safari Classic winner, Stig Blomqvist. Former Austrian national rally champion and three-time national historic champion, Kris Rosenberger (below), was also entered in a Tuthill 911 that had competed in several earlier events with its previous owner. He would be co-driven by partner, Nicola (Niki) Bleicher, on her first rally in Africa.

The weather through Kenya and Tanzania in the weeks before Safari was wet on an epic scale. Heavy rains in the mountains washed away many roads and bridges and some cancelled stages would be inevitable. Nevertheless, the rally began in Mombasa on November 27th and the competitors completed day one with the first three stages of the 2019 event.

The end of the day saw Kabras Porsches first and second, Blomqvist third and Rosenberger fourth. Three seconds separated first and second, then it was seven minutes back to Blomqvist and Rosenberger: the Austrian less than a minute off Stig. The front two were setting a super hot pace, but Safari is all about surviving the long haul.

Day two brought the first big change at the front. Chager ran well in the first two stages but failed to start the third of the day. This cost more than two hours in penalties and moved him out of the top ten. As team mate Onkar Rai took the lead, Rosenberger outpaced Stig: Nicola was learning to manage the notes and the pair closed the gap to the lead to under three minutes.

Huge rains in the mountains around Arusha in Tanzania lead to the cancellation of all stages on day three, but the cars got racing again the day after. Blomqvist came out with guns blazing, setting the fastest time on stage one. Onkar Rai responded, going quickest on two, but the day’s third stage again hurt the Kabras team and Rai suffered damage. He moved down to fifth overall and Rosenberger took over the lead with Blomqvist some thirty seconds behind. Kabras driver, Tejveer Rai, was now in third.

Day five is the mid-point of the rally and what’s known as ‘rest day’. Drivers get a chance to catch up on sleep, relax or go sightseeing while the crews prepare the cars for four more days of torture. In an extended six-hour service, every Tuthill car is stripped, checked and rebuilt ready for rally part two. This is made possible by a huge team effort, including a mobile parts base shipped from the UK and a devoted tyre station with two tyre guys managing the thirty-six tyres allotted to each car for the nine-day event.

The scale of Tuthill’s presence in Africa is akin to manufacturers on world championship events and many of the mechanics looking after these 911s in Kenya are ex-WRC, so operate efficiently under extreme pressure. The team has run as many as seventeen cars on previous editions and, given the sums clients are paying to complete the event successfully, there is a pressing commercial case for the highest possible level of technical support.

Compared to how solo competitors with simpler aspirations go rallying in Africa, the Wardington army may seem like overkill, but if you want to start ten cars, rally them flat out for nine days and thousands of kilometres in an environment as harsh as this and get them all across the finish line nine days later, it is difficult to overcook the support. The detailed campaign is a giant leap forward on how privateers used to go rallying back in the day, but what clients expect nowadays on tortuous, far-flung events.

Today was the penultimate day of the 2019 East African Safari Classic Rally and it was a typical day of Safari highs and lows, as seen in Richard’s latest video diary (below – see the full set on the Tuthill Porsche YouTube channel). From securing loose goats to losing a podium place within sight of the finish with an unfortunate landing, the rally is all about highs and lows, but that is why devotees love it so much.

As we wait for the final stages of day nine to begin, 6.8 seconds separate Blomqvist and Rosenberger at the front of the field. That exciting story is about to conclude, but this rally is packed with stories equally as thrilling right through the order. From those drivers who save for a lifetime to experience this event, to the people who help run and operate it, to the spectators who take so much energy from brief glimpses of rally cars once every two years, Safari Classic is an incredible spectacle.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I hope the organisers can continue to build upon the overhaul of their internal structures and entice more cars back to Kenya in 2021. This event and the spirit and heritage it honours merits huge respect and success: it is one of a kind and unique in the world.

Photos by McKlein Photography ©Tuthill Porsche


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