The onlookers whooped and whistled pointing excitedly to the forming dust clouds piercing the sky as Sebastian Ogier car screeched past the WRC Safari Rally finish point, winning the race in Naivasha.
Frenchman Ogier and his navigator Julien Ingrassia of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT team had just completed the roughly 320 kilometre race, bringing back fond memories in the minds of millions of rally enthusiasts in Kenya.
For nearly twenty years the World Rally Championship (WRC) had been missing a unique element, and perhaps its natural home, Kenya, where lions and elephants take the front row seats as drivers burn rubber in mind-bending speeds in the wild.
The last time Safari Rally was on the WRC calendar was in 2002. If you may recall, this is the year English football club, Arsenal, matched Manchester United by achieving their third double and subsequently taking home the FA Cup as well as the league title to their trophy cabinet.
A lot has changed in the world since 2002, the year when Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, started psychology and computer science classes at Harvard.
Today, the Facebook juggernaut owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, key platforms that are transforming how people connect and communicate.
And just like in the technology world, WRC’s motor sport has transformed in very unique ways since 2002.
“When we used to rally before, we didn’t need to wear the safety clothes. You could have your T-shirt; it was an option of whether to wear gloves or not. But now, they are supposed to wear the fireproof protection; they’re supposed to have a helmet. Everything is compulsory,” Kimathi Maingi, a former Safari Rally driver told AlJazeera.
This year’s Safari Rally was made up 18 stages all spread across four days starting June 24, with the prime action centered around the Great Rift Valley, Lake Naivasha and its environment.
At least 10,000 spectators camped in various vantage positions around the rally circuit keen on witnessing history as tens of drivers squared off in super-fast route sections as well as on those tough, rough and rocky segments.
The drivers crisscrossed the fields of Soysambu and Hell’s Gate conservancies as well as Kedong Ranch – key tourist attraction sites that also help protect vast fauna and flora.
The event organizers, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), says that not a single wild animal was hurt, leave alone die, during the global show that was streamed to over 500 million spectators around the world.
Which begs the question: how was the WRC Safari Rally organised to avoid human-wildlife conflict, mitigate against polluting the environment while also ensuring that the event yields return on investment for Kenya?
Experienced drivers would tell you that Safari Rally demands discipline especially for global racers who enlisted to compete in Kenya, a circuit that has been out of WRC calendarfor two decades.
First off, FIA undertook an environmental impact assessment before granting Kenya the rights to host WRC Safari Rally.
Their undertaking has paid off as no single wild animal was hurt even with over 10,000 onlookers trooping to the scene of action in Naivasha and camping there for days.
Globally, businesses and entities are shifting towards sustainable practices and FIA has not been left behind in running the sport.
With thousands of people pitching tent in hotels and in the open fields along the rally route, pollution of the environment is highly likely unless measures are put in place to control.
On this end, FIA deployed waste collection agents, ensuring that any scraps and litter do not end up in dumpsites but rather are recycled if not repurposed.
What’s more, FIA has been reaching out to WRC drivers urging them to adopt local wild animals as a means of boosting Kenya’s tourism industry while also joining the global push for conservation of species.
“The World Rally Championships in Naivasha pumped more than Kes 4 billion to the economy. All three, and four-star hotels in Naivasha, and the main section of the rallying circuit—Nakuru, Elementaita and Maai Mahiu —were fully booked for the four days the event took place,” said Njuguna Kamau, a director at the East African Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Further, FIA’s call to rally drivers is paying off with news that overall winner Sebastian Ogier has donated Kes 2.5 million towards Nakuru Children’s project as well as conservation efforts at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“Education is the key for a better future so I want to support Nakuru Children’s Project with €10,000 and we should do everything in our power to protect this wildlife so I will also make a donation of €10,000 to Ol Pejeta Conservancy,” Ogier said.
In 2009, Jamaican sprinter and 100m world record holder Usain Bolt adopted an eight-month cheetah cub at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage.
Clearly, just as technology has evolved in the past 20 years, so has the organization, planning and execution of WRC calendar fixtures.
Modern day WRC challenge not only tests the racers but also aligns pretty well with the dynamic trends that meet environmental conservation and sustainability standards while also impacting economies positively.
As the country looks forward to host the Safari Rally for the next five years, President Uhuru Kenyatta said, “I commit the required financial investment towards another successful championship in Kenya.”