Safari Rally Kenya celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2023, three years since the event returned to the International Automobile Federation (FIA) World Rally Championship (WRC), with every reason of entitlement.
The Safari, which was held as part of the global championship for drivers and manufacturers from 1973, has had an impressive history of ups and downs, the worst being dropped from the WRC for 19 years (2003-2019) because of safety and lack of local financial support.
But the government and the private sector stepped in in 2017 to reclaim the historical place of the Safari in the world of motoring, regaining the WRC status and hosting two editions which have distinguished the Safari from all other events as a “journey to the unknown in the African Savannah.”
The 2022 Safari was not an exception.
Better organised, and well hosted as it served the curiosity and satisfaction of motoring fans in the competition platform.
The Safari earned more accolades by meeting or surpassing many FIA-set standards in media, environmental sustainability, economic benefits and tourism.
The victory of Finnish Kalle Rovanpera, who ended the year on a high note as the youngest world rally champion ever, created enormous publicity for the Safari Rally and Toyota Gazoo Racing Team with their 1-2-3-4 finish or a near repeat of the Japanese manufacturer’s 1993 record.
Rovanpera and Toyota went on to claim the drivers’ and constructors' titles in 2022.
Many drivers rued the road conditions, especially the fine volcanic ashes, better known as fesh fesh, on the foot of Mount Longonot which proved more demanding to navigate than muddy.
While many drivers suffered in these sections at the Kedong stage and complained loudly, there was general consensus that these sections should be retained as it now becomes the true definition of the Safari just like the ice banks in Sweden, jumps of Finland and mountain passes in Monte Carlo.
The year began on a promising note for the future of rallying with McRae Kimathi nominated to compete in five WRC events in Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Estonia and Greece under the FIA Rally Star programme’s Junior World Championship class after winning the Africa junior title.
The young driver, navigated by Mwangi Kioni, ended the year in the fifth position, a notable achievement by a rookie who also gained the much-desired international exposure and needs to cast his net wider at a higher level of competition.
Kimathi looks forward to a fulfilling year together with teammates Jeremiah Wahome, Hamza Anwar and Maxine Wahome. Anwar has already acquired an R5 car although yet to announce the make which he will debut in Uganda during the New Year celebrations.
The junior team competed in all regional Africa championship events in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia, and taking all podium finishes.
They were always accompanied by Karan Patel who finished second in Africa championship behind Zambia Leroy Gomes.
The young Kenyan ended the year by clinching a deal with Red Bull which named him as one of the Red Bull Athletes and cemented this relationship on December 19 when the energy drink company invited him to Finland for Toyota Gazoo Racing Team end-of-year victory celebrations and pre-season testing in snow and ice conditions.
Patel has said that he plans an all-out assault in the WRC, Africa and Kenya championships next year with his long-term goal of becoming a real professional driver.
At the management level, the Kenya Motorsport Federation (KMSF) expanded motorsport to bring in various levels of sport under its arm to regulate and encourage growth.
The 4x4 raid category is one of the categories which recorded tremendous growth.
Veteran rally driver Carl Tundo and his father Frank Tundo started the X Country circuit racing in Machakos, a branch of rallying which requires minimal expenses as one way of bringing back more players in the sport which is still reeling under the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the 70th anniversary celebrations on the card, and more Kenyans acquiring modern rally cars, 2023 is a continuation of the success recorded this year in the WRC Safari Rally.