Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lined up along the roads from the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) in the heart of Nairobi all the way to Naivasha, some 100 kilometres away to catch a glimpse of the rally cars, to welcome the return of the World Rally Championship (WRC) to the country after 19 years of waiting.
More fans watched the World Rally Championship Safari Rally on location Thursday. It is projected that the number will increase by 35 percent on Saturday.
The Safari Rally will be watched by a global audience of 70 million people on TV, adding to the annual cumulative TV audience of 900 million viewers.
Whereas KICC was sealed off from the public as a Covid-19 containment measure, Nairobians lined up along the city streets yesterday to catch a glimpse of the sleek rally cars driven by some of the best crews in the world.
The youngest competitor in the Safari Rally is 19-year-old Oliver Solberg, while the oldest is 91-year-old Sobeslow Zasada.
The fans were held back by police officers at the Hotel Inter Continental and along Parliament Road all the way to Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. Some fans chose vantage positions at the foot bridge and overpass at Pangani.
At Muthaiga Police Station, crowds occupied every available space on both sides of the Thika Superhighway. The crowd peaked at the General Service Unit Headquarters, but there were still others at Roysambu roundabout.
At MISC, Kasarani as many as 100,000 fans were on either side of the 4.2km Super Special Stage. Local residents craned their necks out of their balconies to catch the action.
At Kasarani, a flock of the resident marabou stork stubbornly refused to move until Dani Sordo in a Hyundai i20 WRC1 kicked up dust 30 metres into the sky. The turbocharger anti-lag of the World Rally Cars produced ear splitting sounds elicited wild cheers from the crowd.
The dress rehearsal was started by Carl Tundo and Onkar Rai in identical VW Polo cars racing side by side. The cars were evenly matched, only to be separated by three seconds in the end.
The atmosphere became tense. With eyes trained on the medium jump, many wondered what would happen when the top drivers arrive. While the Kenyans took clean lines on corners, the top professionals skidded from the inside. After Sordo, the other competitors arrived in style, leaving a cloud of brown dust behind them. World champion Ogier/Julien Ingrassia in a Toyota Yaris R1 car was quickest in a time of 3mins:21.5secs. He was followed closely by his Toyota teammates Kalle Rovanpera/Jonne Halttunen in 3mins:21.8secs.
The cars then made the 100km journey to Naivasha. Word spread quickly that they would use Thika Superhighway through Muthaiga Road, all the way to Ruaka, passing through Banana, Tigoni, onto Limuru town before joining the main Nairobi - Nakuru highway. Crowds poured onto the roads, and boda boda riders suspended work for the day to catch a glimpse of the cars.
National Police Service and the WRC Safari Rally head of security, Julius Kabiru, rolled out the best traffic police control operation ever. Business in all the above locations came to a standstill, with fans waiting to see the rally cars. Luckily, they were well behaved.
The entire route had been closed for traffic on one lane, and despite the heavy traffic snarl up, motorists came out of their cars to join in the party, clicking or filming the action using their mobile phones.
Fans in Naivasha welcomed the Safari Rally by lining up along the road from Karai Shopping Centre to the KWS Training Institute turn off in large numbers.
Earlier, President Uhuru Kenyatta flagged off the event at KICC. President Kenyatta, who is also the patron of the Safari Rally, was joined by FIA president Jean Todt, Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, and the WRC Safari Rally CEO Phineas Kimathi for the ceremonial flag off.