NAIROBI, Kenya, August 31- Local and international competitors from the FIA European Rally Championship to the Kenya National Rally Championships have paid tribute to Björn Waldegård, the first world rally champion who passed away Saturday from cancer.
Waldegard died aged 70, following a fight with cancer. His health had rapidly declined in recent months but he was due to drive a Lancia Stratos at Rallyday at Castle Combe at the end of September, but cancelled that appearance in order to receive treatment.
Only two months ago, he drove a Toyota at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Waldegård took the inaugural world drivers’ crown in 1979 having contested selected European championship events earlier in this career, scoring five wins in the process.
The Swede, who was 70, still made occasional competitive appearances and won the East African Safari Classic in 2011 co-driven by his son Mathias.
“He will always be remembered as the first world champion,” said Craig Breen, part of the Peugeot Rally Academy line-up in the ERC.
“He was a massive ambassador for the sport and was still competing on the East African Safari Classic. As a world champion he was an inspiration to anyone who came behind him. He was still a young man so it’s a sad loss for everyone.”
Petter Kristiansen, an ERC Junior contender from Norway, said: “I’ve been watching what he had been doing but when I was young I remember watching the Paris Dakar rallies and he was the commentator on the TV.
“I remember that very well when I was about 10 or 11. It was always nice to hear him speaking so it’s sad to hear he’s passed away.”
German driver Sepp Wiegand said: “For sure it’s sad news about him that he’s not here any more. He’s an icon from rally sport. I know him from the name and some old videos.”
Mark Higgins, who is chasing ERC Production Car Cup honours on Barum Czech Rally Zlín, said: “He was just a pure gentleman and even at his age a very good driver from when I sat in the Stratos with him a few times. He was quite an amazing character and I’m very sad to hear that he’s gone. There wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”
Jean-Pierre Nicolas, the ERC Sporting Manager and a former rival of Waldegård, paid an extended tribute: “He was not just a fast driver but he was one of the best drivers, one of the five best in the world at his time with people like Röhrl, Mikkola and Munari. He was a very calm person, never any problem with anybody.
“He was always a fair guy, very straight. We can always say a lot of good things when one guy has died but I cannot imagine anybody to have one problem with Björn, it’s impossible.”
He added: “I remember him in 1970 when he won Monte Carlo with the Porsche and I finished third with the small Alpine 1300. In France we say he is aMonsieurwith a big M and this means he is a big man for everything. I really admired that he drove for so long and did Rallye du Maroc four years ago with my car.
“He was so passionate about rally and I think in his mind he must have needed to drive. The rally atmosphere was his life. One of his big qualities was that he was very good everywhere,”
The departed great became the oldest driver to win a WRC event at 46 when he won the Safari Rally, the event that shaped his legend here in Kenya.
“Sure on snow because it was his favourite surface but on gravel and also in Africa, especially in Kenya, he was one of the top drivers and it was always a big motivation to all the other drivers when he was doing the same rally as you,” Nicolas stated.
Former Capital Sport rally guru, Eddy Kimani, now Director of Communications, Governor’s office, Nakuru, posted on his Facebook page “RIP Bjorn Waldegard, many memories of you we will cherish forever,” to lead the countless online tributes from Kenya.
Alongside the message was the photo below when the departed Swiss maestro crashed during the Classic Safari, an event he headlined to the last.
-Material from AP and Max Rally used in this report