Year in review: Pandemic puts Safari Rally’s return on hold

It has been over a year since the Federation of International Automobile (FIA) sports announced the return of the Safari Rally to the World Rally Championships and 2020 ought to have been the year it revved off again after 18 years.

That announcement had brought tremendous excitement on East African and rally fans from all over the world before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, halting global sport and among them arguably the world’s toughest rally course.

The 2019 World Rally champion Ott Tanak was among a host of active drivers to throw their support behind the African showpiece as he remarked:

“Safari is something very unique and special. The element of giraffes and elephants will add some more zest to the event next year and the roads as well.”

Six-times world champion Sabastian Ogier-world’s second most successful rally driver with 6 world titles, 3 behind Sebastien Loeb-was by then quoted saying:

“If we look at the past, it’s (Safari) always been something very unique in the calendar. But even today it may not be as different as it used to be, I still expect something exciting and challenging.”

In March this year, preparations were in top gear as the WRC Safari Rally officials led by the patron His Excellency President Uhuru Kenyatta as well as government officials from the ministry of sports hurried against time to ensure Kenya was ready to make a grand comeback to the world’s crème de la crème in matters rallying, with the president promising unrivalled support to the Kenya Motorsport federation as well as the ministry of sports to make the Safari comeback a success.

“My administration will continue to work with relevant bodies to ensure that the 2020 Safari rally and successive events thereafter are hosted successfully.”

However, as fate – Covid-19 in this case-could have it, Kenyans will have to wait a little bit longer to witness world’s best drivers compete for championships points here in Kenya.

With the prevalence of covid-19 in Kenya and the world at large rampant, FIA postponed this year’s event to 2021 with the hope that by then, containment of the spread of coronavirus will have been achieved all over the world.

Local drivers’ preparations were as well halted with the regular season of the Kenya National Rally Championship, KNRC being terminated with only two legs raced.

Kenya rally legend Carl Flash Tundo won the season opening Guru Nanak rally at the Stoni Athi resort with Baldev “Flying Singh” Chager finishing a close second.

On 9th March 2020, the “Flying Singh” turned the tables and won the Nyahururu leg and topped the KNRC log with 56 points ahead of Carl Tundo who had 52 points.

This would later prove to be the last rally action in the country, before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Kenya and all sporting activities being suspended.

However, the lack of rally activity in the country hasn’t slowed down the preparations for the Safari Rally which is slated for 24th -27th June 2021.

FIA president Jean Todt has made a number of visits in the country to launch and inspect various projects that are ongoing.

A month ago, Todt led the Kenyan rally fraternity in the launching of WRC Safari rally greening legacy project whose aim is to plant 18 million trees to converse the environment while also marking Kenya’s absence in the world stage. Sports cabinet minister Amina Mohamed said:

“We are going to plant 18 million trees to commemorate the 18 years Kenya was absent from the WRC. We are going to plant the trees in our traditional safari rally routes, wetlands affected by deforestation and at the spectator stage at Moi Sports centre, Kasarani.”

The Kenya Motorsport Federation president and the CEO of Kenya Safari rally Phineas Kimathi has affirmed their commitment to ensuring the route and all necessary measures are in place before given timelines with the recent visit of FIA President Jean Todt a show of support from the world governing body.

“We are delighted to have the president of FIA in Kenya and we specifically brought him to Naivasha to see how prepared we were for the 2020 WRC Safari rally. He has commissioned the service park and broke ground for the pavilion that we intend to develop before the 2021 WRC Safari rally in June.” Kimathi explained.

Sports cabinet secretary Amina Mohamed reiterated Kenya’s preparedness and their interest in sharing the country’s heritage with the world through the event.

“Basically, we were introducing Todt to our preparedness because we had promised to be ready for the event, were it not for the pandemic that has set us back. And so, we wanted him to see the service park which is the biggest in the world and we hope everyone else will emulate the standards we have set. We have enjoyed a lot of support from the president and we are very proud of the strides we have made so far.”

Todt has given nod to the much that has been accomplished so far and expressed optimism that the return of Safari rally to the bigtime will be a welcome reminder of its old pomp, high intensity and endurance-testing nature.

The construction of a spectator’s pavilion is currently underway in Naivasha whose aim is to give a better viewing experience to the thousands who will turn up to witness the revered prowess of rally drivers as they snake through Naivasha stage on their way to Nakuru which is going to the finishing point.

“Nobody was expecting covid-19 and I comment all the efforts that have been made by the Kenyan government to contain the pandemic and it was very dear to me to come myself and see the efforts that have been made. I would have wished to have a rally here now amidst all the wildlife, and that’s the beauty of Kenya.” Todt recapped.

From the 1992 incident when the legendary Carlos Sainz and his navigator Luis Moya had to evade zebras and human traffic enroute to winning his maiden Safari title, the 2000 Safari rally incident when Juha Kankkunen hit a cow but managed to finish second and Giles Panizzi taking matters into his own hands by punching an opponent after a crash, the Safari Rally has served up both beautiful and ugly moments over time; but that’s why we love it and can’t wait to have it back.

For us rally enthusiasts, we keep our fingers crossed and hope that 2021 will not spring a new surprise that may lead to another postponement, and that we will all be in good health to welcome back the great safari rally back home.