Nairobi — Easter holidays had become synonymous with the Safari Rally, which was then considered the world's toughest road race.
Names of Kenyan rally aces like Joginder Singh, Shekhar Mehta, Vic Preston Jnr and Ian Duncan were, to the rallying world and specifically Kenyans, also synonymous to the event. While Mehta was the most successful in the event with five victories, the late Colin McRae will be remembered for closing the world chapter of the Safari Rally in 2002 by winning the race.
After 2002, the rally was excluded from the World Rally Championship due to poor funding and organisation. Since 2003, the event has been part of the African Rally Championship. It is now known as the KCB Safari Rally after its sponsors, Kenyan Commercial Bank.
McRae, who won the Safari Rally thrice in 1997, 1999 and 2002 died in a helicopter crash recently in Scotland, his home country age 39. His five-yearold son, Johnny also died in the crash. At the Safari Rally he was co-driven by Nicky Grist. McRae was the son of five-time British Rally champion, Jimmy McRae. His younger brother, Alister McRae is also a professional driver. Incidentally, McRae, a Briton, won the last world recognised rally, which was first held to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England in 1953. It was launched from May 27 to June 1, 1953, as the East African Coronation Safari Rally covering Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (Tanzania).
In 1960, it was renamed East African Safari Rally and kept name until 1974 when it became the Safari Rally. McRae won the world title in 1995 while driving a Subaru and was runners up in 1996, 1997 and 2001. He was British champion in 1991 and 1992. He helped Subaru to the Manufacturers' title three times in the 1990s and for Citroen in 2003. The Queen of England recognised his achievements in 1996 by appointing him a Member of the Order of the British Empire. His 2002 Safari Rally triumph made him go into the record books as the driver with most event wins in the World Rally Championships.
Carlos Sainz, Sebastien Loeb and Marcus Gronholm have since broken that record. This was his 25th world championship victory of his career. After winning the rally McRae told Kenyan journalists: "We had a big enough lead to ensure that we could win provided we kept out of trouble." Problems McRae took the lead after Tommy Makinen experienced problems earlier on and eventually retired his Subaru because of a broken shock absorber.
Colin Mcrae and his team after winning the 50th edition of the Safari Rally in 2002 at the KICC.
Kenyan rally drivers remember McRae with much affection. He was the first Briton to win the Safari Rally. He opened the door for fellow Briton, Richard Burns who won the rally the following year in 1998. In 2000, Burns won again after McRae had it for the second time in 1999. Burns died in 2005 of a brain tumour.
With the death of McRae, Britain has lost her only two world rally champions. Kenyan rally drivers, including former Safari Rally Group N winner, Patrick Njiru and Abdul Sidi, expressed shock at his death. Njiru is the holder of the Kenya National Rally Championship titles on three occasions. He was part of the Subaru Team that included McRae on his first visit to Kenya. Sidi says McRae first came to Kenya in 1993 just after winning the British Championship. "The Japanese brought him here as a publicity stunt as he drove in one of the smallest cars ever to participate, the Subaru Vivio," Sidi told The Saturday Standard. "I met him for the first time then when I was with the rival Daihatsu Team with Marco Brigetti. The Vivios were even smaller than the Daihatsu Charades, which were then regarded as 'Dudus," recalls Sidi.
Sidi remembers McRae as "very friendly" despite his fame. "I remember him saying, it was great to be in Kenya. He found it most enjoyable to see the countryside while practicing," Sidi says. On his Safari Rally debut in 1993, McRae did not last long in the event. "He did two stages up to Makindu," Sidi recalls, adding the Briton had, however, made a mark by setting quickest stage times before Makindu. Difficulty "The fact remained that even the best driver of McRae's calibre would have difficulty winning the Safari Rally in one of the smallest cars ever to contest the event," Sidi says.
McRae came to Kenya two more times before making history as the first Briton to win the Safari Rally in 1997, while driving a Ford Focus. He was also the youngest Briton to win the World Rally Championship title that year. Others in the local motor sports fraternity mourning McRae include former Kenya Motorsports Foundation chairman, Mr Bharat Bhardwaj, Kenya's Lee Rose and top driver, Mr Baldev Chager who was quoted saying MacRae was one of the biggest inspirations to his career despite having never met him.
"Colin's death is a big loss to the motoring world and East Africa where he had established a strong fan base. He always promised me to be back to the Safari every other year not knowing that we will one day lose our world status," Bhardwaj says.
McRae became fascinated with cars from an early age and was competing on motorbikes by the age of seven. At 14 he had won numerous junior and intermediate championships.
He participated in his first rally in 1985 after swapping his trial bike for an auto test car. In 1995, McRae made his debut in the World Rally Championship at the Swedish Rally.
McRae was married with two children. He also launched a popular brand of computer games based on the World Rally Championship. He was born in August 5, 1968 and died on September 15.