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20 Mar 2018

Out of Africa

Ryan Champion tackles extreme heat, rough terrain and even the odd giraffe to win the 2017 Safari Classic in his 911.

Ryan Champion tackles extreme heat, rough terrain and even the odd giraffe to win the 2017 Safari Classic in his 911.

Words: James Page
Photos: McKlein

Now in its 15th year, the East African Safari Classic Rally is a punishing but popular addition to the rally calendar, pitting vintage machinery against some of the toughest terrain in motorsport.

This year, in an unprecedented finish, it was won jointly by Kenya’s Carl Tundo and Tim Jessop in a Triumph TR7 and the British crew of Ryan Champion and Richard Jackson in their Omologato-backed, Tuthill-prepared Porsche 911.

Some measure of how hard Ryan was pushing in order to secure victory came on Special Stage 9, where he averaged 96.5mph for the 13.2-mile section – proof that you need speed as well as endurance to do well here. We caught up with Ryan last month to ask him about his amazing victory…

What makes the Safari so special?
It’s one of the few events today that combines length with difficulty. Rallies have become shorter and shorter and they’re all about speed. The Safari has evolved as a classic event, but it’s one of the few that has maintained that challenge. It’s still 2170-2500 miles long and it’s an iconic part of rallying history. It was part of the world championship, of course, and you still get great names that want to do it. It’s no coincidence that Stig Blomqvist and Ian Duncan compete – it’s still attracting those original names, and you still need a blend of speed and reliability.

What are the key things you need from a car on the Safari? Why is the 911 particularly well suited to the event?
The 911 is inherently a very strong car. The engine is relatively unstressed, it’s strong and it has very good torque. They were over-engineered when they were new, which helps. If you have a highly-strung car on an event like the Safari, you’re going to have problems. Then there’s the fact that the competition is so tough. The Tuthill guys have been going to Africa for a while now, so they’ve ironed out a lot of the weaknesses. You need something that’s reliable and strong, but still fast – and our car was very quick and strong.

You split driving duties, with Richard doing the road sections and you the competitive legs. How did that work out?
It’s the third time that I’ve done the Safari with Richard. On the first occasion, I co-drove. On the second, I did the majority of the competitive sections. But this time, he said: “Let’s really see what we can do.” He still drove the road sections, though, and the African traffic can be a challenge! We had to use the main road between Nairobi and Mombasa quite a lot as a link section, and getting past trucks – which can be two abreast – is interesting to say the least.

You were running at the sharp end from the start. Who were you most worried about in terms of your rivals
Stig was in an identical car – he was a teammate with Tuthill. He’s always fast, and I think he said that he’s been going to Africa since 1971. He has an incredible amount of experience. He might be in his 70s, but he never stopped driving so he never lost that performance. Over a long-distance rally he can still deliver top results.

The Kenyans know the terrain so well, so Carl Tundo, who we ended up battling with, is always up there. And there was a team of Kenyans in three Porsches who were very fast, so there’s always a battle at the front.

You took the lead just past the halfway stage. Did running first bring any specific challenges?
Our plan – although I don’t know if you can really stick to a plan on something like the Safari – was to keep in touch, but not necessarily be leading, because that does bring its own challenges. Some of the stages are up to 63 miles long and you have wildlife, people, mopeds and even the occasional truck straying on to the stage. It’s not a closed road event. There are course cars, but people don’t tend to pay much attention until the first competitive car goes through.

Did you suffer any mechanical problems?
The car was so reliable throughout. We lost a brake pipe, which could have been due to anything – perhaps we caught it on a rock. We had to do 40-45 miles with no brakes. That was difficult. I had to get Richard to warn me much further in advance than normal. We were coping all right, then three giraffes appeared! I had to hope they wouldn’t walk into the road, but luckily they stayed on the edge. It’s not the sort of thing you want to see when you have no brakes.

Mechanically, the car was very good. We had a broken rear damper, but other than that it was just routine servicing.

A good back-up crew must be invaluable.
The team is very much part of the Safari. First of all, in terms of preparing the car, but also during it – the mechanics are the unsung heroes. They’re working long hours. They get two hours after stages, then there was a rest day when they had six hours and they were pretty much rebuilding cars halfway through the event. They did a fabulous job.

What’s the key to doing well in the Safari, in terms of the driving challenge?
I have a bit of experience in Africa now. I’ve learnt that when the road is fast and smooth you can really push. When it’s rough, you just have to back off. And if you can’t see where you’re going, you just take it easy. It’s about striking that balance. You don’t want to break the car, but you need to go fast enough to be competitive. That’s the yardstick – reaching the end of the day but at a good pace.

How did it feel to have won such a famous event?
It’s amazing, given its iconic reputation. Just getting the car home is a result – we’d have been happy with a podium. There’s so much work involved that reaching the finish is a relief in itself. Looking back, you forget the worst bits – it’s an incredible experience with amazing sights. If you finish, there’s satisfaction in that. It’s a big undertaking.

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