As they each got into their new Ford Fiestas, Jeremy Wahome, Hamza Anwar and McRae Kimathi were only looking to finish the WRC Safari Rally.
Jeremy had never been in a rally car before, his experience limited to Formula Three vehicles, Hamza described himself as the fastest upcoming rally driver, and Kimathi was convinced that he was now a mature driver rid of the hasty decision-making of youth.
They all made it to the last day of the 320-kilometre rally through 18 stages.
Of the three, Jeremy was the highest finisher at 16th, followed by Hamza, who was 25th. Kimathi retired on the last day, a few kilometres from the finish. They are, in the photo above, from left to right, navigators Victor Okundi, Riyaz Ismail and Mwangi Kioni, with the drivers, Hamza, Kimathi, and Jeremy.
Safaricom Newsroom caught up with the latest entrants on the Federation Internationale de I’Automobile’s (FIA) Rally Stars programme. The drivers and their navigators reflected on their experiences at the four-day event.
Jeremy Wahome (navigated by Victor Okundi)
From the beginning, Jeremy was determined not to let the pressure of transitioning from the single-driver cars of Formula to the two-seater rally cars overcome him.
He rates the rally as “very enjoyable” as he achieved a good position despite being a rookie in that variety of motorsports.
“In the past, you are under too much pressure you almost forget to enjoy yourself. So the biggest thing for me, I enjoyed myself, the result was also good, which is a bonus,” he says.
Racing in front of friends, family and under the watchful eye of the WRC officials, he says, can be overwhelming. There was also the new car to get used to, the decision not to get excited at the sight of fans along the way to the first super special stage at Kasarani and getting used to not having drivers alongside like he had experienced in Formula races.
He adds it was a privilege to “drive cars you love at high speeds.”
Jeremy also noticed being a rally driver came with new lessons.
“Over here in the rally, yes there is competition but I’m not racing with you directly, so it’s a bit of a much friendlier environment. You get guys giving you advice, giving you tips,” he says.
Jeremy and Victor were at the back of the field in the rally. This meant they were at the behest of all the cars ahead of them and in case one of the front cars made a mistake, they would not progress. That was the case on Friday, when a lot of the vehicles ahead of them crashed out, got stuck in the ruts and retired, meaning they could not race and were awarded the default bogey time. Their rally, therefore, really started for them on the Saturday leg.
For Victor, who was Jeremy’s navigator, racing past Elementaita was his most enjoyable stage of the rally despite the fact that it was the first time he was using the number system for pace notes, which was a new challenge.
A navigator uses pace notes to accurately describe the rallying route with as much detail as possible. The navigator reads out aloud to the driver the turns, junctions as well as notable features of the route and the terrain.
“But Elementaita flowed so much and we were able to push the car. When the synergy is there, the notes are flowing and the car is responding, it’s so much fun. By the time we were reaching the end of the stage, and it’s a short stage, we were gasping. It is a lot of work,” says Victor.
As a first-time rally driver, Jeremy knew he had to build a good rapport with his navigator, crucial for the race ahead.
“We had a lot of time together, from the week before, the recce on Tuesday and even driving down to Naivasha and getting used to how he talks and how he writes the notes. It was a smooth transition,” he recalls.
This synergy was so good that they added a bit of fun to the notes, where Victor would shout “Finya” when they got to the straights.
His biggest lesson?
Rallying is like running a marathon, unlike the sprints-like format of Formula.
“It’s about keeping your head cool, knowing which stage to push, which stage to take it easy. You have to be wise enough to know,” says Jeremy.
Hamza Anwar (navigated by Riyaz Ismail)
Hamza went into the rally brimming with confidence and came out of it quite shaken by the experience.
“It was tough,” he says. “It was the toughest event I’ve ever done, and I’ve done the East African Classic, I did the Equator Rally, which was treacherous with mud, but this one just had it all.”
The duo credit their finish to luck but admit it tested the Ford Fiesta and their partnership quite hard.
Hamza likes giving the spectators a good show. When he met the crowds outside the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) after the flag-off, he decided to hit the corner at the first roundabout at speed and drift, much to the cheers of the crowd. The toughest part of the rally for them came on the last day, when the car developed an issue and ended up in a dust-filled rut. The relatively smooth roads they had seen during the recce had been churned into dust-filled trenches by the cars ahead. The rules forbid the crew from getting any help in such situations so they had to dig out the car with their bare hands.
Hamza knew how to get a car out of such a situation: you jack it up, place stones under the wheels for traction and move, patiently, until you are out.
“It was so frustrating and you know, we had to dig the car out manually, cars are passing you, you’re getting so frustrated, like I’ve made it right to the end, you know, like just kilometers away from the finish (and) you’re praying to God man, please bail me out of this,” says Hamza.
The dust-digging task that left the duo with blisters on their fingers, with Riyaz dealing with inflamed sinuses and blocked ears.
“When we got to the finish line, it was the biggest relief ever,” says Hamza.
The biggest lesson they learnt, says Riyaz, who has been navigating for more than a decade, was patience.
“Just go with the flow. Whatever Mother Nature gives you, whatever the terrain gives you,” he adds.
Hamza’s career heroes have been his father and his uncle. He was happy they saw his explosive starts and blistering pace, especially in the rally’s last stages. Each could see a bit of themselves in him.
“When he (my father) saw us at the finish line he was in tears. But we’re proud, we’re very happy, and I’m sure he is as well,” says Hamza.
Two incidents particularly touched Riyaz.
The first one came in one of the stages, when two young boys carrying the Kenyan flag approached them for autographs.
“We both removed our Safaricom caps and gave them a gift. So I’m sure they will remember us somewhere down the line,” he says.
The second one happened at home. When he couldn’t make it to his son’s school event on the Friday of the rally, the boy proudly said the reason.
“When I came back home, just seeing him coming running to me, grabbing my trophy, and he was looking at it. That was very special to me,” he concludes.
McRae Kimathi (navigated by Mwangi Kioni)
Sunday, the last day of the rally, started as a good day for Kimathi.
He had gained a good understanding of the car, had won several stages in his class, and started to pick up the pace.
“The car can take a beating. It has a lot of torque, so in the twisty areas, it’s very easy to pull through the corners,” says Kimathi.
Despite its relatively low top speed of 180 kilometres per hour (kph), it goes from zero to 100 kph in five seconds.
He had gotten used to that, the steering that comes with a small four-wheel drive car with a short wheelbase, and had reached an understanding with the engineers on the adjustment needed to put the machine firmly in his hands.
While he had noticed that the car tended to overheat and choke on the plentiful dust and would perhaps need longer suspension systems, it was a harbinger of the bad part of the day that came two kilometres to the finish line.
“We started to feel the car dragging so I asked about it because I thought I had a puncture but then I couldn’t understand why the car was not moving,” he recalls.
They tried digging it out of the sand, and it moved for 10 metres, and they later realized that the rear wheels could not move and had actually collapsed inward to the point it was not possible to make any progress.
Friday was the most challenging day for the duo as they got stuck, someone ahead of them crashed 200 metres from the start and they surmised that perhaps the pressure of such a huge stage was affecting the drivers.
Saturday was marked by lots of overheating in the car, probably because of the dust, and the car was choking.
The engineers who had come with the car that was imported from Poland, checked the car, replaced some parts and took a card that picked up data from the car for further analysis. Kimathi recalls the surprise of his teammates at the fact that he did not get any punctures.
He loved Loldia and Malewa stages and then ran into misfortune at Hell’s Gate, but overall he was very happy and looks forward to more events with the powerful little car.
Like many others, he saw and felt the support of the Kenyan fans on the rally, who jumped on the car when he finished one of the stages and showed him the kind of love that came with the Safari Rally coming back in full glory after 19 years.
Although he has grown up in the rallying world because of his father, Phineas, Kimathi was struck at the level of professionalism needed to be at the top in the sport.
He was also surprised at the level of responsibility that was required of him even in making decisions on the choice of tyre to use.
“I think learning how to trust yourself and knowing that the buck stops with you and the decision comes not from you was something that I really had to learn,” he says.
Being a part of the Rally Stars programme comes with a lot of pressure and Kimathi was under a little more because of his father’s looming presence as the Chief Executive Officer of the team that organized the rally.
“He was pretty happy with my performance,” he says.
“Of course, I had very little seat time in that car, being a left-hand drive and being a new type of machinery, which I’ve never driven before. He was quite impressed with the way I was able to adapt to the car quite easily with little to no seat time.”
Now that he is used to the car, he knows what it is capable of, and the team has taken the data and taken note of the areas of improvement, it is on to the next one for Kimathi.