58 rally drivers, 34 Kenyan and 24 international racers, will take part in this year’s Safari Rally in the East African nation later this month as the event makes its return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar for the first time in close to two decades.
Most of the Kenyan drivers have set the base expectation of completing the event before eyeing higher finishes in the overall standings.
Hussein Malik, a rally driver, told CGTN his exploits in the precursor event, the Africa Rally Championship (ARC) Equator Rally, where he crashed out meant he planned to approach the Safari Rally differently.
“For this one, what I realized from the last one is it is not a sprint, it is going to be a marathon. We have four days of hard rallying, stiff competition. Apart from having the WRC boys coming into Kenya, we still have our Kenya drivers who are all gunning for something,” Malik said.
“Our aim for this one would be, of course, number one, a finish, and if we can get anywhere into the top 20 we’ll be happy,” he added.
Malik’s navigator, Linet Ayuko, reiterated as much: “Looking forward to finish this Safari. It is a big deal. It is the WRC and it is a dream come true for most of us local drivers to be able to take part.”
Last week, during the unveiling ceremony of Malik’s rallying team, local rallying legend Patrick Njiru echoed this sentiment urging his compatriots to focus on bringing home their cars on all four wheels.
“For our local stars, the only advice I want to give is: just finish! Completing this event will give you publicity like you have never seen before. Just finish, even if you are last; come and we will give you the best trophy, better than the winning trophy,” Njiru said.
The desire to upstage the bigger names is there but Malik admitted that there is a gulf in class between the foreign drivers and the local ones because the former are full-time professionals engaged in the sport while the latter are amateurs.
The most prominent foreign driver headlining the event will be Frenchman Sébastien Ogier who has claimed seven WRC titles in the last eight seasons.
Other notable foreign names in the rally are 2019 WRC champion Ott Tanak, five-time WRC runner-up Thierry Neuville, Spanish veteran Dani Sordo and 2019 WRC2 World Rally Champion Pierre-Louis Loubet.
“They are world rally drivers, so this is their job. He will wake up in the morning and get into a (rally) car; that is his office. For me, I wake up and go to my business. I manage to test a car, maybe, once before a rally. So, definitely, it is day and night for the two of us, but we will try our best.”
However, that, he noted, did not mean the international drivers will have a walkover because of the notoriously difficult nature of the Safari Rally.
“None of them have ever rallied in Kenya, so, even for them, it is a new experience,” Malik told CGTN.
“We have done the route twice already this year. We did the Nakuru Rally and the Equator Rally, which were based in the same area. We did it when it (route) was completely dry when it was the Nakuru Rally and then we did it extremely wet during the Equator Rally. So we have had a feel of both terrains.”
“If it is dry, we will attack and see how best we can climb the ladder,” he added.
But, competition aside, this will also be a chance for Malik and his colleagues to rub shoulders with who’s who in rallying and pick up a few useful tips about the sport from the professionals.
“Of course, they are the world’s best and if we manage to get a chance to interact with them and learn something from them…looking forward to that,” Malik said.