Why WRC Safari Rally Kenya is a championship like no other

Ott Tanak navigated by Martin Jarveoja driving Hyundai car cruises past Miti mbili at Kedong Ranch during WRC Safari Rally Kenya in Naivasha on March 29, 2024. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

For years, the World Rally Championships (WRC) Safari Rally has been the centre of attraction for local and foreign drivers.

With each championship, the Safari Rally continues to attract some of the most experienced drivers in the world.

From 1973, the rally was part of the World Rally Championships covering 5,000km (3,100 miles) at a time it covered the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Drivers used to power their cars through a variety of roads of powdered sand, fast farm tracks and in rough and rocky terrains on the Great Rift Valley.

After Federation of International Automobiles Association (FIA) changed its rules for the event to be ran in a closed circuit, the distance was also reduced to under 1000km (this year it was 355.92km) and confined in one country.

And as it celebrates the 72nd Anniversary and four years after it was reinstated to WRC status, Safari Rally ranks among the global competitive rallies.

Kalle Rovanpera naviagted by Jonne Halttunen in action at Hells Gate section.[Kipsang joseph,Standard]

As one of the toughest rallies competed in rough roads that are full of rocky and rough terrains, some experienced drivers said participating in it makes them stronger and resilient.

Five-time Safari Rally champion Shekhar Metah once said it was the longest and most tiresome competition when its hosting membership included Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

By then, it was referred to as East Africa Safari Rally in the 50s and to early 70s. By the time the hosting rights shifted to one country - Kenya, it came with a number of changes witnessed today but the hosting days went back to traditional days of Easter Holidays.

On these days, there's lots of merrymaking by rally fans for the four days (March 28-31) of competitive motorsports.

Today, it's a rally that's full of unpredictable weather conditions owing to the global warming that has extensively changed the weather patterns and climatic conditions.

President William Ruto poses a for a photo with the male drivers at the flag off of the 2024 WRC Safari Rally at KICC. [PSC]

Paraguayan driver Diego Dominguez said he likes the rally because of its rough and rocky terrains, which makes it more competitive and special to him.

"Driving here makes us more stronger when taking part in other global rallies that are not competed in severe conditions like this one. And it's the reason we cannot miss it," said Dominguez.

Japanese speedster Takamoto Katsuta acknowledged it as a bigger and tougher event.

However, he said the unpredictable weather conditions makes it even more interesting and entertaining to fast drivers and the fans.

"Unpredictable weather patterns allow us either to drive in dry and dusty conditions or rainy with muddy conditions. This makes it unique to drivers or fans," said Takamoto, a member of Toyota Team.

Takamoto finished fourth behind world champion Finn Kalle Rovenpera.

KNRC winners Carl Tundo with his navigator Timothy Jessop. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

As the drivers took turns in the thick, dusty and muddy terrains of Naivasha, they came face to face with different wildlife in the bush.

Most of the routes they followed in the closed circuit were marked with tourists attraction sites in the bushy terrains.

"We came across different wildlife when driving. We were cautious when speedily criss-crossing in some sections," said world champion Kalle Rovanpera.

Fin Essakeppa Lappi's Hyundai 120N Rally 1 hit a zebra at the 8km mark in the Sleeping Warrior on the penultimate day of the event.

Driving in the open tarmac roads at the main flag-off also offers rally fans plenty of excitement that they cannot get in the rough roads.

"When watching some of these cars at the flag-off gives us plenty of excitement as we cannot all go out in the bush or in those competitive sections to have a glimpse of the cars," said Nick Mwangi, a rally fan.

The rally still has two more years as a WRC event in Kenya until 2026.

 

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