It’s because of Queen Elizabeth that the iconic Safari Rally exists

Safari Rally

Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex and the youngest child of the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, accompanied by Sophie Rhys-Jones, the Countess of Wessex, flag off Peter Solberg and Phil Mills in a Subaru Impreza in the 50th Safari Rally in 2002. Queen Elizabeth send Prince Edward to represent her at the 50th anniversary Safari Rally.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The East African Safari Rally was founded in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

In our two-part series, our motorsport correspondent PETER NJENGA recounts how Queen Elizabeth II, who died last Thursday, influenced the launch of the Safari Rally, the world’s toughest motor rally competition

The passing away of Queen Elizabeth II last week was received with sadness in the world of motorsport with the International Automobile Federation (FIA) President Mohammed Ben Sulayem leading top drivers in eulogising the British monarch in Greece on the sidelines of the WRC Acropolis Rally.

A Volkswagen Beetle is serviced during the Coronation Safari Rally days.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

But it is here in Kenya where Her Majesty’s contribution to the growth of motorsport will be felt for generations to come.

Motorsport thrived under her rule and the rich British heritage of the sport.

In Kenya, the Safari Rally's conception is directly linked to her coronation as the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1952, and for several years, the annual event was known as the Coronation East African Safari Rally.

Queen Elizabeth II’s first public acknowledgement of the Safari Rally was in 2002 when she sent her son Prince Phillip, the Earl of Wessex, to preside over the flagging off ceremony of the Silver Jubilee Safari on her behalf.

“On behalf of the motor sporting fraternity, I convey our heartfelt condolences to the Royal family and the people of Great Britain. May her Soul rest in eternal peace," the chairman of the Kenya Motor Sports Federation Phineas Kimathi paid tribute.

“The East African Safari Rally was founded in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Kenyans owe it to you that we continue to enjoy this fabulous event as part of our heritage,” Kimathi, a retired rally driver and currently also the Chief Executive Officer of the WRC Safari Rally, added.

“It is with great sadness that we have learned of the passing of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” FIA President  Ben Sulayem said in Greece last week.

“The Queen was undoubtedly one of the most respected Heads of State ever to have lived, and I send my condolences, and those of the entire FIA community, to the Royal Family and all of the citizens of The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

“Motorsport, and especially Formula 1, has its heart in the United Kingdom, and the Royal Family has over the years given great support and patronage to the sport. For this we thank them, and those events taking place around the world this weekend will undoubtedly be undertaken in honour of her Majesty."

‘Most amazing lady’

Malcolm Wilson, OBE, owner of British squad M-Sport Ford, said: "I think, like everyone in the UK, I am totally saddened by the passing of the most amazing lady whom I personally hold in so much respect for how she has held everything together for such a long period of time and somebody my mother believed kept the country together.

The winning Mercedes-Benz 219 of W. A. “Bill” Fritschy and Jack Ellis (start number 21) during the East African Safari Rally in1960.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“I had the honour of meeting her at one of the Queen’s garden parties along with receiving my OBE and those will be the most treasured memories of my life.”

Rich Millener, team principal of M-Sport Ford, said: “The UK mourns the loss of a fantastic leader and an inspiration on how to conduct yourself and the nation through good and bad. Rest in Peace.”

British M-Sport driver Gus Greensmith added: “A life of dedication and service to our country. For me, the Queen represented the core values of what makes me extremely proud to have the British flag on my door. God save the Queen.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing star driver Elfyn Evans, also a Briton, echoed Greensmith’s comments, saying: “This is extremely sad news. Rest in peace Your Majesty.”

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the Safari Rally remains part of Kenya's history. There were few vehicles in Kenya at the turn of the last century, and pioneer white settlers did odd hill climbs but nothing much to write home about.

But Africa was opening up and once Nairobi was connected with Johannesburg by road, a group of “cowboys” mooted the idea of a road race between the two cities.

In October, 1936, the cars started outside the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi for the 4,800-kilometre Nairobi-Johannesburg race which was won by C.L. "Fairly" Engelbrecht.
The rallying seed was planted.

After the end of the Second World War, Eric Cecil, the chairman of the competition committee of the East African Automobile Association (EAAA), challenged his peers to attempt the journey south as individuals and compare times. He won one of the marathon races in a Skoda.

“Bwana Safari” Eric Cecil explains a point to then Ugandan President Milton Obote and his wife Miria during the start of the Ugandan leg of the East African Safari Rally in 1970.


Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Cecil was determined to establish a motorsport culture in Kenya and actually established the Lange Langa racing track in Nakuru and "Round the Mountain Trial" in Mount Kenya.

Something with variables

But to some, this was boring and a waste of time. They needed something with variables.

So, in January 1952, as the story goes, Cecil, his cousin Neil Vincent and Eric Tromp were sharing a beer at a bar in Limuru, near Nairobi.

As the night wore on, Cecil and Tromp asked Vincent why he shunned Langa Langa.

“I can't be bothered running around in circles. But if you could organise an event where we get into our cars, slam the doors and go halfway across Africa and back and the first car is the winner, then I will enter," said Vincent, as Cecil told me in a 2002 interview for the Daily Nation.

This simple statement led to the birth of the Safari Rally.

Saturday: How, several beer mugs later, Eric Cecil launched the world’s toughest rally.

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