The Kenyan Safari Rally will make its much-anticipated return to the World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar in less than three weeks’ time after last year’s edition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event, which will take place in the scenic town of Naivasha in Nakuru County, was restored to the WRC calendar following an intensive campaign led by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Members of the motorsports fraternity and other stakeholders are buzzing ahead of the start of the event and according to Rose Wachuka, the Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, it is a “moment of pride” for the East African nation.
Wachuka said leadership, organization, investment by government and Kenya’s growth as a sports destination had contributed to a successful return to the global stage after years of painstaking effort.
“The rally is steeped in our country’s heritage and so it is just incredible to see it coming together, it is incredible to see it unfolding and it is great to have drivers from across the world coming to Kenya for the first time, for the toughest rally on the planet,” Wachuka said.
In all, 58 drivers have been confirmed for the event, 24 of them foreigners with the most prominent being Frenchman Sébastien Ogier who has claimed seven WRC titles in the last eight seasons.
Other notable foreign names in the rally are 2019 WRC champion Ott Tanak, Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville and Pierre-Louis Loubet.
Wachuka said the government was ready for the event and the necessary health and safety protocols in line with COVID-19 regulations and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) were in place.
“There is resumption to sporting protocols that will guide the WRC. There is a bubble concept put in place and the bubble starts in Nairobi – Kasarani, KICC – and Naivasha, and that has all been mapped out,” Wachuka said.
“All the teams have received continuous communication. The WRC organizing team has all been vaccinated against COVID-19. The Africa Rally Championship (ARC) was the precursor to the Safari Rally and it was a zero-COVID-19 event.”
Additionally, she noted, infrastructure and strict regulations governing access to high- and low-density areas of the Rally are in place.
The choice of the event’s route has also intrigued motorsport lovers and Wachuka said there were a number of reasons behind its selection, which will give everyone a more enjoyable experience.
“It is actually more difficult now but more interesting. The FIA rules have changed, the arena of motorsports has changed, so we are going to see a tougher rally with new rules, a great leadership team and a population that will probably experience the Rally for the first time; so, there is novelty.”
The buzz around the famous rally has also lifted the spirt of business owners hit hard by the pandemic, who see the event as a much needed boost.
Hoteliers, like Sammy Mugo, the general manager at Lake Naivasha Panorama Park and Lodge, are also thrilled to see the tourist town receive a much-needed boost in the midst of a difficult period due to the pandemic.
Government-imposed measures such as a ban on the sale of alcohol, restrictions on operations of restaurants and eateries, a night-time curfew and partial lockdowns have all hit the town’s once vibrant tourism sector very hard.
“The economic empowerment that we are going to get in Naivasha is going to go far. We are happy that the government brought the Rally back and this is going to go a long way through the year and the years to come,” Mugo said.
Mugo said that the benefits of the Rally to the tourism industry extended way beyond just the influx of money and fully booked hotel rooms.
“We have benefitted through a lot of infrastructure in Naivasha. We have had some roads carpeted again; there is a construction of a pavilion, which is quite a noble infrastructure for Naivasha. We have a new service park that has been done from scratch and this is infrastructure that is going to remain in Naivasha,” he said.