How Safari Rally brought back fond memories of the golden years

Rai Onkar navigated by Drew Sturrock driving Volkswagen Polo GTI cruises through Oserian section, Naivasha. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

With their participation in the 2021 World Rally Championships (WRC) Safari Rally for the first time in 19 years, Kenyan drivers picked up important lessons, exposure and delight that goes with competing against the world’s top rally drivers.

Although Kenyan drivers could not match the prowess and experience of the foreign professional drivers, the competitive four day championships gave them what they had lacked over the years when they were only competing in the Kenya National Rally Championships (KNRC) and Africa Rally Championships (ARC).

The WRC event exposed the weaknesses of the homologated Kenyan machines that were unable to compete against the factory-designed overseas shipped rally cars.

The roughness and toughness of the Kenyan terrain in Naivasha also gave local and foreign drivers great challenges to ponder on the types of machines that they could use to tackle the future editions of one of the world’s toughest rallies.

Laban Cliff Onserio who was a co-driver of Rio Smith in a Ford Fiesta by finishing 26th overall said the race prepared them to effectively compete against the same experienced drivers in future events.

“Its toughness and roughness after driving thousands of kilometers in a closed circuit was no joke but a great milestone that has actually prepared us for future local and international championships,” he said.

The top Kenyan driver in the championship was Rai Onkar co-driven by Drew Sturrock in Volkswagen Polo. They finished seventh overall in the WRC event.

He was followed by Karan Patel in Ford Fiesta (8), Carl Tundo/Tim Jessop in Volkswagen Polo GTI (0), Jasmeet Chana/Ravinder Chana in Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (13) and Dilraj Chathe/Henderick Fourie in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (14).

The event also gave the drivers some tough times compared to European events, which of course brought back fond memories for the past Safari Rally events.

And it was truly nice for the Kenyan motorsports fans that the (WRC) event was going global and Africa was visited again after a 19-year hiatus after it was last hosted in the Kenyan soil in 2002. It was clear it had been missed.

This was demonstrated when jubilant young fans lined up in the competitive sections and waved at the cars in spectator zones making it a truly memorable and magical event.

And as the cars were racing in Naivasha, the battle was between the Toyota and Hyundai.

Toyota scooped the Kenyan title after world champion Frenchman Sébastien Ogier took his fourth win from six global rallies. Ogier was followed by Takamoto Katsuta another driver racing in a Toyota machine at the Safari Rally.

Kenyan champion Rai Onkar said their main predicament over the years has been lack of WRC recommended machines.

He admitted that their regular machines were less powerful compared to the ones used by the foreign professional drivers.

The world-class machines are specially manufactured for the racing purposes at the factory as opposed to the ones used by local drivers that are directly bought from showrooms then modified.

“They (foreign professional drivers) have powerful machines that are specifically made in the factory for the racing purposes as opposed to ours which are bought from the showrooms then modified,” he said.

And the assurance by President Uhuru Kenyatta that the rally is in Kenya to stay for another five years was equally received well by the drivers.

This was after International Automobile Federation President Jean Toldt was impressed with the safety measures taken by the government to ensure the event was successful.

“Safety of drivers and the public on different roads is a key factor that determines the hosting rights of key WRC events and Safari Rally is not an exception,” he said.

Toldt, who is also the United Nations Secretary General’s Ambassador for Road Safety, said they have confidence in the government to achieve their mandatory requirements to keep the WRC status.

“The government had tremendously worked hard to achieve our goals and this is a result of good stewardship of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed,” he said.

After the WRC event, most drivers concentrated in the KNRC and ARC events that saw Carl ‘Flash’ Tundo win his fifth career title in the Kenya National Rally Championship this season ahead of Baldev Chager.

This was after he finished third overall in the season-closing KCB Guru Nanak Rally won by Charger co-driven by Ravi Soni in Volkswagen Polo R5. Chager posted 1 hour 20mins 47.2 secs.

Others were Karan Patel/Tauseef Khan in Ford Fiesta-R5 who finished second in 1:22.42.1 ahead of Carl Tundo/ Tim Jessop in Mitsubishi Evolution 10 in 1:28.30.8, Eric Bengi/Peter Mutuma in a Mitsubishi Evolution 10 in 1:31.48.3 and Jasmeet Chana/Ravi Chana (Evolution) 1:37.21.4.