Among motor racing fans there will always be questions that will stir up eternal disputes. One of them is whether it is more difficult to drive in the World Rally Championship than in F1. Honestly, we prefer not to go into it. The reason is simple: each represents different ways of understanding motor racing. If in F1 everything is focused at the maximum possible speed within the safety of a circuit, in rallies you have to deal with a series of problems for which you need a much more resistant car. However, there is a test in which huge differences are marked. Especially in terms of reliability.
We are talking about the Safari Rally. Held since 1953, the conditions offered by the Kenyan tracks dictate a degree of difficulty for men and machines well above the average. And it is that, to the frenetic driving of any rally, a whole series of unforeseen events created by the savannah is added here. An environment impossible to fence for the test, making that the pilots can meet other vehicles, all kinds of wild animals and groups of people herding livestock. In addition, the climatological factors must be added. In the first place, an asphyxiating heat that, until the arrival of more severe regulations, invited the participants to remove their fireproof overalls and helmet.
And secondly, the alternation between mud and dust. In the event of rain, the tracks turn into a clayey quagmire where the mud makes it impossible to keep the car straight. But it is that in case of dryness everything is wrapped in imposing clouds of suspended dust. As blinding as it is dangerous for engine cooling in the middle of Africa. And be careful, because if all this were not enough we must add terrible potholes, very long stages and night sections. With this panorama, no wonder many define Rally Safari as the most dangerous of all those who have been part of the World Championship.
That's why every car that has won it deserves a place of honor in the pantheon of reliability. Something that 50 years ago reached the Datsun 240Z, possibly the most interesting Japanese sports car of its time.
DATSUN 240Z. RALLYE SAFARI CHAMPION 1971
In the last 23 years Mitsubishi's reign in the Safari Rally is unquestionable; having won 15 times, 9 of them consecutively. During the eighties and nineties the inevitable Lancia Delta Integrale and Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD appear, with which Carlos Sainz won the 1992 edition. However, the interesting thing comes when you explore the early years. Here are the winning VW Beetles from the first two editions. The 1955 and 1958 Ford Zephyr. The Peugeot 404s that dominated during the sixties with three consecutive victories… A panoply of cars that were not a priori sporty, but incredibly hard as stones.
Just what it takes to win the Safari Rally. However, it is striking how in the seventies vehicles appeared on the scene that made the transition between these simple utility vehicles adapted for the savannah and the virtuously specialized machines of the eighties. A moment of transition where Datsun / Nissan stands out with 4 wins in 12 years. A streak started in 1970 thanks to Edgar Herrman and Hans Schüller's Datsun 1600 SSS, who repeated at the top of the podium the following year with their Datsun 240Z.
A unit that has become mythical among Japanese sports fans. Since it was the greatest success in competition of this sports car with which Japan conquered the western market. Designed by Yuyaka Katayama - Nissan's director in the United States - the Datsun 240Z responds to the need to offer a performance sports car but at the same time affordable. A formula with which the sports division of Nissan conquered the American market thanks to a mixture of good design and an engine that is as reliable as it is playful.
THE RALLYE SAFARI UNIT. CUSTUDED BY NISSAN ITSELF
With a 2-liter engine capable of delivering 4CV with natural aspiration, the Datsun 150Z offers the basic coordinates for an adaptation to dirt tracks. Of course, the toughness of the Safari Rally made the brand prepare it thoroughly. Something that is not only seen in the lights for the night sections, but also in some Enlarged wheel arches that protect tires and suspensions totally different from those fitted by the standard units. Operational in the 1971, 1972 and 1973 editions, this winning Datsun 240Z ended up sheltered in the ships of Nissan America's own collection.
A fact that should not surprise us, since as we have seen before the idea of the 240Z It started from the American division of the brand. Furthermore, the 2 liter version was not marketed in Japan, but only the 4. A model with less power that, logically, was not the one chosen for the tough sections of the Safari Rally. Damaged by the obstacles of the test, our protagonist remained in a somewhat lamentable state until In 2013 the Nissan Restoration Club decided to bring it back to its heyday. A very interesting initiative, since this center dependent on the brand has been rescuing jewels since 2006.
And no, being Japanese, the idea of this restoration center was not going to be as simple as that of the FCA Heritage. And it is that, in addition to fulfilling the preservation tasks, this department of Nissan America serves as a test bed for the brand's engineers and mechanics, using the classics as objects of practice. A smart solution that has already achieved remarkable results with various historic units. Of course, none as interesting as the one that now commemorates the half a century since his victory in the Safari Rally. Surely the toughest test of all that have passed through the World Rally Championship.
Photo credits: Datsun-Nissan