As preparations for the 2013 East African Safari Rally hot up, we took time out to spend a day with Andrew Siddall and Dansport during a testing day at Blyton Park race circuit in sunny Lincolnshire.
The Kenyan Airways East African Safari Classic definitely shuns modesty, claiming to be “the words greatest rally.” But with a huge entry list of stunning historic rally cars, former world champion drivers such as Bjorn Waldegard and Stig Blomqvist, the rally may well have a reasonable claim to this title. Certainly the terrain, climate and navigational aspects of the event are some of the most challenging of any rally in the world.
The purpose of a test, or “shakedown” day such as this is to assess the progress in preparation of the car, making adjustments here and there with the aim of making the car more comfortable and capable of dealing with the multitude of pressures that the rally has to offer.
Immediately on climbing into the car, Andrew commented that his helmet was banging on the roof of the car, so the team set to work on adjusting the height of the Kevlar bucket seat. Hundreds of miles through the challenging terrain and climate of Africa are tough enough without your head banging back and forth over every bump, so minor adjustments like this are critical. Work continued on other mostly ergonomic adjustments until the car was ready for a few laps.
As the 6 cylinder engine burst into life from cold and after a few blips on the throttle, the immaculate Datsun 260Z was soon steadily warming up around the tarmac.
As the pace picked up it became clear that despite the huge suspension travel and gravel tyres intended for wildly variable terrain, this car is surprisingly capable flicking through the black stuff. With a particularly high pitched and revvy exhaust note, prior to the car emerging from the trees you could be forgiven for mistaking the noise for a Japanese superbike.
As Andrew pulled the car into the pits, the team set about discussing necessary adjustments to the car and in a frenzy of spanners and impact drivers the changes were underway. Time to switch to the immaculately presented MK1 Escort, currently in tarmac trim so perfect for scaring the living daylights out of friends and family.
With a 4 cylinder BDA engine in an immaculate engine bay, huge sticky tyres shod onto period Minilite wheels, a stance of timeless aggression and a livery of Siddall and Hilton razor barb, the Escort looks, and sounds totally purposeful. The cockpit is cosy to say the least and as I huddle my knees into my chest in an effort to keep my foot away from the floor mounted horn switch, Andrew hits the gas and the car lurches past the green light of the control building.
The difference between the two cars is significant. Whilst I thought the Datsun was capable around the tarmac, the Escort is in another league. As it flicks through the left-right-left at the bottom of the circuit, Andrew lets the back end drift just enough to catch it for the next corner and slide it through the complex with the Escorts synonymous grace. Although the suspension bears little resemblance to the standard Escort, the grip and speed at which the Escort changes direction is incredible, the sensation being more akin to a single seater or Caterham.
Passengers swap places and Andrew sets about whitening more knuckles.
As the Escort draws into the pits, the Datsun makes it way out again, complete with second gearbox and several other adjustments. The speed at which the team can replace major components is striking. A gearbox change in the Escort takes only 12 minutes, the propshaft left assembled to the output shaft in order to avoid topping up the oil level. Major operations that would take most of the day for a competent mechanic take a fraction of the time. Changeover time is assisted by the immaculate condition of the cars underbelly, chassis and transmission, no rusty bolts or rounded heads to slow them down. That’s my excuse anyway.
Andrew is clearly happier with the Datsuns setup now and he pushes harder around the track. My head is nearly torn from my shoulders as I prepare it for a 90 right and Andrew instead swings left onto the gravel. For a second I think he’s pushed too hard and lost it, but before I know it Andrew is lining the car up for a jump and we’re in the air. I tense up, waiting for the bang as the car lands and my head bounces off the roll cage, but there is nothing. You can hardly tell that the car has been in the air at all, such is the effectiveness of the suspension and chassis setup.
Just as well the car soaks up big hits like this. As the doors of the container open in Kenya come November, its shakedown days like this that will have fully prepared the car for the ultimate test of a historic rally car.
You can follow Andrews progress live once the rally starts at http://www.eastafricansafarirally.com/