By Roy Gachuhi
To Kenya motorsports fans of an earlier generation, the death of Bjorn Waldegaard must feel like the loss of a family member. These are the people who came of age during the irretrievably gone golden era of the East African Safari Rally and its successor, the Marlboro Safari.
Waldegaard was a giant of that era and his exploits in a dazzling array of racing cars – Porsche 911, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota Celica, Opel, Fiat, Volkswagen, Lancia Stratos, they never seem to end – will remain etched in the memories of these fans for all time.
Kenya fans got to know him in the 1960s and ‘70s as one of the original overseas drivers who were making a herculean and seemingly futile attempt to become the first to win the Safari.
Since its start in 1953, locals had maintained an iron grip on it and the overseas effort became a tale of its own, much like the eternally repeated story that no European team had ever won the Fifa World Cup in the Americas until Germany finally broke the mould this year.
But it was not Waldegaard’s fate to do it – history reserved that for a fellow Scandinavian, Hanu Mikkola of Finland who finally reached Dar es Salaam first in his Ford Escort in 1972. From then onwards, the floodgates opened and Waldegaard would become a dominant figure; he won the rally four times in 1977, 1984, 1986 and 1990.
It is impossible to think of Waldegaard without the great rivals with whom he alternated his victories and losses coming to mind: Mikkola, Sandro Munari, Walter Rohl, Marku Allen, Sobieslav Zasada and locally our great Joginder Singh and Shekhar Mehta.
These men’s names helped defined a generation – carefree, optimistic and happy. The economy was strong – Sh7 to the US dollar and Sh20 to the Sterling pound and the systems worked.
You could apply for a Nairobi City Council house and get it on your own merits. A job came to you, not you to the job. And every Easter, there was the Safari, touted as the greatest test of man and machine in the world. It run across East Africa and for four days, fans kept vigil beside the radio where the Voice of Kenya news casters told them at various intervals where the cars were.
Exotic names like the Mau Summit in Kenya, the Ruwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the Usambaras in Tanzania were standard fare. It was a magical time. In the early years of his sojourn here, Waldegaard’s name was synonymous with the Porsche 911. Although he would later make a meal of the Safari with his five wins, I was captivated most by his near miss in the 1974 run when he finished second to our Joginder Singh.
He hounded the Flying Sikh for half the route and during the third and final leg, he looked good to win. But in Malindi, the suspension of his Porsche packed and he begun to lose points heavily, allowing Joginder to take charge in his Colt Lancer up to the end.
There was some controversy surrounding this win. The clerk of the course, Mr Derek Gates, “neutralised” an entire section of the route after over 70 cars got trapped in a mud slide in the Mt Kenya region. Some drivers who had gone through this section protested that Gates’ decision was unfair, that it was against international rules.
Waldegaard’s great rival, Sandro Munari, said: “I was robbed of victory by this decision.” He finished third behind Waldegaard. Vic Preston Junior added his voice, too. “I have already submitted a protest on tape. I don’t think it was the right decision.”
Gates stood his ground. “It was in accordance with international rules and was agreed on by the stewards here,” he said. “The rules say every section should have nearly the same conditions for every driver. This section became impossible for most.”
Waldegaard’s reaction was typical of the man. A tough competitor who always eschewed controversy, he accepted his place without raising his voice. But he was a great fighter who was not shy to break ranks with his bosses if needs must.
As part of the Lancia team backed by the Italian carrier, Alitalia, in the 1970s, Waldegaard frequently found himself in stiff competition with Munari, an Italian. This rivalry came to a head in 1976 during the Sanremo Rally.
Waldegaard had a four-second lead over Munari entering the final stage, only to be forced to squander that advantage in keeping with the team’s hopes for an ‘equal’ shootout. Waldegaard, however, emerged as victor by four seconds, having disobeyed team orders and overtaken Munari. As a result, Waldegaard left Lancia and joined Ford late 1976.
He began his career in the early 1960s, driving Volkswagen 1500s for the Swedish importer but with the advent of the Porsche 911 in 1967, he got a chance to become a front runner. He drove his first Monte Carlo in 1968 and finished 10th and a few weeks later won the Swedish Rally for the first of five times.
Porsche started providing him with a car and in 1969 and in 1970, he won the Monte Carlo twice for them. In so doing, he also clinched the manufacturer’s prize for his new employers in 1970. But somewhere along the way, he parted ways with Porsche. That’s when he drove a plethora of cars, including the Lancia Stratos that he brought home to second place in the 1975 Safari.
At the end of 1976, he signed with Ford. The following year, he and Ford reaped big, the Safari, Acropolis and RAC Rally. In 1979, he had a dual contract with Ford and Mercedes and won the very first World Rally Driver’s title.
When Ford stopped and Mercedes pulled out, he signed with Toyota and over a period of 10 years won the Safari three times, the Ivory Coast Rally twice in addition to the New Zealand, Cyprus and Hong Kong-Peking rallies.
Waldegaard was a regular participant in the rally of nostalgia, the East African Safari Classic-organised by Surinder Thathi. In retirement, he drove with his son Mathias who also navigated him in the Classic Midnight Sun Rally. In the East African event, he drove his beloved Porsche 911.
His death from cancer at 71 is a great blow to motor sports fans but they can be grateful that he lived and competed among them. And they will never forget him.