Top car makers battled it out in the safari rally

Updated: November 20, 2013

The portal, was until 2006 a source of pride for Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan, the manufacturer of Subaru cars. It was also an inspiration to budding racing drivers when rallying headlined the company’s motorsport division, Subaru Technica International (STi).

In the website, which today concentrates more on Subaru models trade news, the Motorsport Archives Link is a living testament of Kenya’s past special place in global rally sport.

Of the 27 Subaru All Works Drivers from various nationalities including seven former world champions, two are Kenyans — Patrick Njiru and Ian Duncan.

The two are listed as members of an exclusive club of Subaru motorsport folklore, having helped build the Subaru brand name from anonymity to become one of the most successful international rally cars particularly the aggressive, all conquering Subaru Impreza STi WRX model that once commanded a near cult following globally among the fast and furious.

The Subaru craze that was started by Njiru  in Kenya, who drove the marquee from 1984 to 1999, finally hit the yuppies of Kenya’s emerging middle-class  recently following an influx of second-hand imports of the Impreza WRX STi model from Japan and Europe.


Eight-year jinx

On November 30, they will be parading their machines during the Subaru Fest at Carnivore grounds,  including a limited edition Subaru Impreza S200 — one of the 400 ever made — handed down to Martin Felix, 23, an IT specialist at San Valencia Hospitality by his boss Phineas Kimathi, another great Kenyan rallying hero.

Under  STi  banner,  Subaru debuted in international motorsport in the 80s in the under-powered Subaru Leone. One was actually driven by Njiru in 1987  to 17th position when he broke the eight-year jinx of African drivers’ failure to finish the Safari.

Buoyed by these notable results, Subaru debuted the turbo-charged Subaru Legacy in 1990 in a fashionable manner. Noriyuki Koseki, who had discovered Njiru and supported him in 1987, convinced Fuji Heavy Industries to prove the car’s racing potential by attempting the  FIA 100,000km world record run by a turbo-charged sedan.

This was achieved between January 2 and 21, 1989 when  three Japanese drove the car non-stop at the Arizona Test Centre outside of Phoenix, Arizona to break the 100,000 km  FIA World Land Endurance Record by maintaining an average speed of 138.780 mph (223.345 km/h) for 447 hours, 44 minutes and 9.887 seconds, or 18.5 days. Pit stops were made every two hours with a driver change and refueling, while tyre changes were made at 96 hour intervals, or every 13,400 miles (21,600km).

Convinced they had a winner,  Koseki went ahead to debut the Legacy in the world market under the motorsport platform in the Safari Rally.

In 1990, Subaru made a full assault with six cars led by Finnish ace Markku Alen. All the Group A Subarus retired with the exception of Jim Heather Hayes of Kenya, who finished sixth overall.

Njiru had became a fast learner, starting from the bottom and in 1990 matured spectacularly by finishing eighth to become the first driver in the world to finish the Safari in a Group N or standard version Legacy.

This earned him an automatic place as a member of the fully-fledged Subaru All Works Drivers Team at category B.

From then on, Njiru’s star shone, earning rare outings in Australia, South Africa and Malaysia.  Born of peasant parents who did not own a car or motor bike, Njiru’s attachment with the Safari clicked in the 60s when like all boys of his generation from the Mt Kenya region he would keep vigil during Easter to watch the cars attempt the “sting in the tail” last leg, which claimed the giants around Runyenges speed test section.

After high school, he went to Japan for further studies and returned home with a diploma in mechanical engineering and a lasting relationship with the Japanese.  Koseki went ahead and invited him to be part of his motorsport team, Subaru Motorsport Group as Fuji Heavy Industries was yet to attempt the World Rally Championship full calendar.

The 1990 quantum leap saw him emerge as one of Africa’s most visible homegrown sports hero.

By 1992, he was seen as one of Africa’s foremost sportsmen with a multi-racial appeal. In his privileged position, he was chosen as a symbol of reconciliation after the birth of the Rainbow nation in South Africa by being  invited there to bridge the colour bar in sports by competing in an all white sport. He finished a credible 7th in a Nissan Stanza.

In 1993  Koseki returned to the Safari just in time after British America Tobacco  (BAT) signed Njiru for a Sh750,000 annual sponsorship to attempt the Safari in a tiny 990 CC Subaru Vivio in the company of Colin McRae of Britain, which he drove to the finish line in 12th position.

Naturally when Subaru introduced the Impreza, he was in a privileged position to do development work in the Safari through the Kenya National Championship in the same year.

With full factory backing Njiru, co-driven by Abdul Sidi, he  finished 4th in the Safari in a Subaru Impreza, the highest African finisher in the history of the Safari.  BAT increased his sponsorship to Sh8.4 million, by then the highest corporate sponsorship to an individual in Africa.

He also won the Kenya National Rally Championship a record five times.

But his 1994 appearance marked diminishing presence  of Subaru Motor Sport Group, which was replaced by UK-based Prodrive that was given the onus of moving Subaru to the citadel of rallying, the World Rally Championship.

Njiru’s heydays took a nosedive due to economic hardships which  affected virtually all sectors of the economy, the Safari included.


Source: STANDARD Digital

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