NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept 25 – The fabled Safari Rally is set to return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) series next year after the 2020 event was postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Kenya and Japan were among the emblematic events which made a comeback to the global series following calendar changes last year. Capital Sport talked to WRC Safari Rally Chief Executive Officer and Kenya Motor Sports Federation (KMSF) Chairman Phineas Kimathi, on a wide range of issues regarding the country’s preparedness, and here is what he had to say.
CAPITAL SPORT: What has the situation been like during the tough pandemic period?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: We took the opportunity to put everything in place during this trying period. We continued working as though everything was meant to have run in July. And I must say that I’m happy with the progress we have made thus far. We’ve also tweaked quite several things because we got additional time. I’m sure when the time comes; we are going to stage a world-class event that is going to represent the face of Africa.
CAPITAL SPORT: Regarding the current pandemic situation that has bedeviled the whole world, do we have some restrictions that you have put in place ahead of the WRC event next year?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: COVID-19 has changed the way sport is being administered across the world; it has also changed how business is run right from air travel, to surface travel to sea travel. What we are looking for is running a safe event. We do not want a situation where as a result of running a motorsport event whether it’s the Safari or the Africa Rally Championship (ARC) event; we expose our participants, our spectators or officials to dangers of contracting the virus. So, we do realize that a number of things will have changed, for example, previously a navigator used to give a time-card through the window which was ajar and talking to the official.
Those are some of the things that will drastically change. In the deliberate changes, we will go electronic and make sure the window is rolled up because drivers normally drive with the protective gear and the risk exposure will be between the driver and the navigator. And with testing, getting a little bit more technological, it’s possible to test participants and give them certificates for 72 hours and so on. In a nutshell, a lot will be a bit different. Obviously, we will encourage people to be part of the event through online services, where we do live streaming of events, post updates, use TV and radio to make sure that our fans are not left behind and are able to follow competition in real time.
CAPITAL SPORT: What are some of the changes you have made during the COVID-19 scourge?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: First, hosting a WRC event is such an enormous task. A lot of our people were there when this rally used to run 18-19 years ago, still harbor the image of rallying in those days. Things have totally changed with operating in a completely different environment. It’s like comparing digital and analogue.
Those days servicing was done anywhere and everywhere. When the Service Park was introduced, we identified a field or even just a soccer field where we set up tents and serviced cars. That has completely changed and what we have established in Naivasha is a small city which is going to be the service park.
The small city must have among other facilities running drinkable water. This small city must have among other things fiber optic cable of certain level because images will be processed on the second without a lag.
These facilities must be made ready before we get started with the actual event. When it comes to the stages, things will also be different. All stages are broadcast live-which means the internet connectivity has got to be very good. Every start of the stage has got to be viewed live from the Rally Headquarters by the Clerk Of Course, FIA experts, safety experts, and that means installing a camera network that is able to beam these camera images not just to the spectators but to the officials that is how advanced rallying has become.
The days of standing there with a clock and pressing because a car has passed are long gone. The people who are monitoring the event from the WRC Promoter London office can broadcast the times even before your own eyesight is able to read what times they’ve done. This is made possible by linking what we are doing here with two satellites and these are things we have got to keep doing and updating as we prepare to host a WRC event.
CAPITAL SPORT: Regarding facilities and infrastructure such the Service Park that you are putting up right now, will they be available to the local racing fraternity after the event?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: The service Park in Naivasha is going to be something extraordinary. We are calling it a Service Park for now but eventually; it will be transformed into a motorsport centre. Once it becomes a motor sports centre, then the Federation will be able to start sports like drifting, slalom, Gymkhana and drag racing.
CAPITAL SPORT: How has the Government support come through so far?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: Many times, a lot of people complain about Government. I choose not to complain about Government. This is because to me, I have gotten very good support.
The Patron of this event is His Excellency the President (Uhuru Kenyatta) and is personally briefed regularly on exactly what we are doing. We are domiciled at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage; and under the stewardship of CS Ambassador Amina Mohamed and the PS Joe Okudo. I think I can’t ask for better support and I must probably be one of those who can stand up and say I have gotten adequate support and they continued monitoring exactly what we are doing on a weekly basis, through detailed reports. You must have seen, for example, when we started the process of laying the tarmac on our service park, our CS Amina was personally present and actually driving one of the dozers- there can’t be any better support.
CAPITAL SPORT: What’s your message for our Kenyan drivers aspiring to take a stab at this prestigious global event?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: One thing we should acknowledge is that there will be several challenges especially with young upcoming drivers or local drivers, one of them being regulatory, in that the cars that are running in the WRC are not the same cars that we drive on a daily basis.
But as you very well know, as the president of the Motorsport Federation in Kenya, I sit in the General Assembly of the FIA. Besides, I also sit in the FIA WRC Commission representing Africa and the Middle East. For these reasons, I savor the opportunity to make presentations, to see whether some of our cars will be able to compete.
And I’m being specific; cars like Mitsubishi Evolution 10 because we have quite several them here, and any other car that are homologated for continental championship- so we are waiting for this special dispensation. We had already gotten the dispensation for 2020. But what we are doing right now is to ensure that that dispensation is carried forward to 2021.
This way, most of the people who own cars that we see every other day will have an opportunity to enter the Safari. However, a WRC event like ours has a caveat of up to 60 competitors. The first 25 or so cars will be taken by Priority 1 class. These are WRC cars and for purposes of the general public, a WRC car is not on sale anywhere in any showroom and that’s what makes the WRC a unique event. You certainly can’t meet somebody driving this car anywhere unless the Manufacture, FIA and WRC Promoter give you a permit to purchase one which is made for you. And for starters, a WRC car without parts is about KES.140 Million.
CAPITAL SPORT: Having said that, do we have Kenyan drivers who can get those cars?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: To be very sincere, we don’t have a Kenyan driver who would fit into that bracket. But we have very good drivers in Kenya who are driving R5 cars. And the R5 cars that they are driving qualify to be in Priority 2 and Priority 3. So, our drivers with R5 cars will be placed in priority 3, because Priority 2 are R5 cars that are being run by manufacturers. Which means Hyundai for example, or Toyota or Ford or even VW and Skoda they can decide to enter what is called Team 2 with R5 cars and those are the car for example what Manvir Baryan has been driving. So those cars qualify to be in category three.
CAPITAL SPORT: You have said this before but it’s always good to reiterate this point. What does Kenya stand to gain from hosting a WRC?
PHINEAS KIMATHI: First and foremost, when you run a country you look at several dynamics. And this is where a government is not very well understood. First, you look at any economic gain of any undertaking that you do. When a road is built, you are spurring economic growth. When you run an event like a WRC, you are spurring economic growth.
When you are talking about economic growth, we are straight away going to an area like tourism. And not just tourism-my Project is exploring ways of ensuring that we have real gains accruing as a result of hosting a WRC event.
One of those things I’m trying to work on-because I have gotten the blessings of the necessary government arms- is to link coffee marketing to the Safari brand, to link tourism, hotel bookings, and game reserve excursions to the actual event. We have an opportunity to exhibit our products in all the WRC European events (eight events) because we are now part of that network, So, if we can go outside there and start selling our coffee along our Safari, and our Masai Mara and we can come back and say having gone to Portugal we are now going to get up to 10,000 or so tourists who will have directly booked as a result of visiting the Safari stand.
And that’s what you have realized that the WRC Project has a very close relationship with Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and the Ministry of Tourism. And I’m happy that the honorable CS Najib Balala is a great follower of exactly what we are doing. He understands the dynamics of selling the country as a tourist destination and he is personally following and encouraging us to have this joint venture through Magical Kenya.