Shekhar Mehta’s Dynasty In Safari Rally

Shekhar Mehta is arguably, the most successful driver in the history of the East African Safari Rally. In his 20 years of Safari rallying, Shekhar has 5 overall victories, one second place, and has finished the rally on five other occasions. Joginder Singh and Bjorn Waldegaard have had more top ten finishes, but no one has ever topped the five outright wins of Mehta.

Shekhar is a Ugandan of Indian descent. He was born Chandrashekhar Mehta on June 20th, 1945 in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. He spent his early years on his family’s tea and sugar plantations, then was shipped off to Europe for schooling. He returned to Uganda to work in the family business in 1965.

Shekhar started his rally career in a BMW 1800 at the Nile Rally. He won his second rally entered, but this time he was driving a Renault. He took on track racing, starting with a BMW 2002tii. Track racing was actually his first love, not rallying. His first Safari Rally entry was in the 1968, but he failed to finish the first stage due to the horrendous weather conditions of that year. He managed to place 27th in his second Safari, lagging due to incredibly unreliable wheels on his Peugeot.

Shekhar was all set to give up rallying and concentrate on track racing when fate intervened. He went to a hillclimb event in Tanzania, and there he met a friend of his who had just bought a rally prepped Datsun 1600sss(510). Shekhar went along for a spin as a co pilot and fell in love with the car.

He bought a well-worn 1600sss from Jack Simonian and entered it in the 1970 Safari, but the engine blew and he retired from the event. Shekhar then spent the rest of a very successful rally year touring Africa and entering rallies in his 1600sss with the help of his girlfriend Yvonne and new Co-Driver Mike Doughty. He even went to Britain and entered the RAC Rally, but failed to finish.

Shekhar got his big break thanks to Joginder Singh. Joginder was supposed to drive for Datsun in 1971 in a new 240z, but went with Ford at the last minute. Datsun had watched Shekhar develop over the last year and decided to give him a shot in Joginder’s car.

I’ve already told the story of the 1971 Safari Rally here, but not from Shekhar’s perspective. Shekhar was in the top ten for most of the race, and gradually worked his way up to 3rd behind Herrmann and Aaltonen in the other Z’s. Aaltonen then dropped back with suspension problems, and Shekhar caught and overtook Herrmann on time points. Shekhar should’ve won the rally, but “Safari Luck” intervened again with the infamous Mud 朙and Rover story.

Shekhar would go on to rally for Datsun all over Africa, with appearances in European and Asian rallies for the next few years, as well as steady appearances in the Safari Rally. He and his family were forced to leave Uganda in 1972 by the Government of Idi Amin, so they set up house and business in Nairobi, Kenya.

He won the 1973 Safari Rally in a Datsun 240z in a dead heat with Harry Kallstrom. The win garnered him international respect and he was invited to rally all over the world that year.

Despite his success with Nissan, Shekhar and co-driver Mike Doughty switched to a Lancia for the 1974 and 1975 Safari’s, but failed to finish both times. He switched back to Nissan and its new Violet for 1976, 1977, and 1978, but failed to finish due to a variety of problems. He and new wife Yvonne had placed 3rd in the Acropolis Rally in 1978. By 1979, Shekhar Mehtas Safari career was on the bubble. He had failed to finish in his last 5 straight Safari attempts. Nissan gave him a Violet 160j(HL510/A10) for the race, but told him that he had to perform better or he was gone.
He performed better than anyone could’ve imagined.
The 1979 Safari Rally

The major players for the 1979 event were Mercedes and their team of 450SLC coupes, with driver Bjorn Waldegaard taking the point. Then came the Peugeots lead by Timo Makinen, and the Fiats with Munari as their strongest driver.

The 1979 Safari Rally

The major players for the 1979 event were Mercedes and their team of 450SLC coupes, with driver Bjorn Waldegaard taking the point. Then came the Peugeots lead by Timo Makinen, and the Fiats with Munari as their strongest driver.

In past rallies the Datsun tactic had been to have the local drivers take it easy on their cars for the first half of the race, and let the foreign drivers beat their cars into the ground. The rally was a race of durability as much as a race of driving skill. Shekhar Mehta wanted to change this for the 1979 rally. He demanded that the Nissan team let him go all out from the start.

He and Mike Doughty put the pedal to the metal right from the get-go. They had stripped the car of most of its spare parts and tools, praying that the car would be dependable, and that they wouldn’t get it stuck anywhere. It paid off big time.

By the second leg, Mehta and Doughty were in a pack at the front with just Makinen, Waldegaard, and Munari. He and Waldegaard dueled it out for a while before Waldegaard pulled ahead in the more powerful Mercedes. Mehta’s car suffered some suspension damage and dropped back even further.
The third leg saw the traditional Safari mud slowing down leaders Mikkola and Waldegaard, both in Mercedes. Mehta and Doughty kept within range. Then both Mercedes fell back with mechanical difficulties, Waldegaard with a blown rear axle and Mikkola with a hole in his radiator, allowing Mehta and Doughty to win by 48 minutes.

Shekhar had his second Safari rally victory and at the same time had proven that the Datsun Violet could run as a hard as the big boys and still be dependable. He had also saved face with Nissan.

Nissan won the Manufacturers team prize in 1979, with Rauno Aaltonen and Lofty Drews finishing 5th, Mike Kirkland and Dave Hawworth in 7th in an older Works 710( Mike was driving officially for Nissan for the first time), and Harry Kallstrom and Claes Billstam placing 9th. Hellier and K Shah brought an older 710 in in 13th spot, while Japanese stars Iwashita and Nakahara slid in 2 spots back in 15th in their PA10 Violet. Six finishers in the top 15 was a good sign of things to come for Nissan, and for all the drivers mentioned.

The 1980 Safari Rally

Mercedes had been badly embarrassed by their performance in the 1979 Safari and were out for blood in the ’80 event. They’d enter a team of 5 450SLC’s, and had worked out the service and support problems that had cost them the last Safari. Bjorn Waldegaard was back for a little vengeance, with an all star team of Vic Preston Jr., Joginder Singh, Hanna Mikkola, and Andrew Cowan backing him up.
safari rally
Nissan was on top with their performance at the last rally, but were by no means resting on their laurels. Nissan had decided to up the ante by racing their new twin cam 16 valve engine in class 2, instead of the stock L20b that the older Violets had. At the last minute Rally officials told them the new engine wasn’t legal yet, so they had to switch back to the old engines, dropping them back to class 4. Leading the pack for Nissan was Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty, then Rauno Aaltonen and Lofty Drews, and Mike Kirkland and Dave Haworth.

Opel was the other team that wanted to make a good show at the rally, and had entered a team of Ascona 400’s, with star driver Jean-Pierre Nicholas and co-driver Harry Liddon leading their charge, and Klient and Wagner as their seconds.

The 1980 rally was the hottest driest event on record, presumably giving the advantage to Mercedes. Dust would be a factor in this event, giving the advantage to the lead teams that didn’t have to spend as much time driving in it. The Mercedes struggled in the mud in past races with their higher horsepower engines, but could fly in the dry conditions. The Datsun Violets were better in the mud, and had proven to be more reliable, but in the dry conditions wear and tear shouldn’t have been such a factor. Or so it seemed.

The first 28 hour section ran from Nairobi to Kisumu, then on overnight to Eldoret for the mandatory breakfast stop, then down through Nakuro and back into Nairobi for the rest period. Mercedes as predicted were ahead on the first stage with driver Andrew Cowan, but only just as Shekhar drove his Violet like a madman and challenged the bigger Mercedes all the way. Mehta then lead for a while as the Mercedes and Opels fell behind with flat tires. Harry Kallstrom took advantage of the situation by driving in faster dust free conditions and taking the lead on and off.

Mercedes effort was starting to show signs of breaking, quite literally. Hannu Mikkola broke a caliper and fell back; Joginder Singh rolled his Mercedes early on and was pretty much out of contention.

At Eldoret the standings were stacked like a sandwich with Nissan then Mercedes taking alternating placings: Mehta-Datsun, Waldegaard-Mercedes, Kallstrom-Datsun, Cowan- Mercedes, Aaltonen-Datsun, and Preston-Mercedes.

Mehta lead on the way back into Nairobi, but stopped to change a bent wheel and let Waldegaard and Kallstrom go ahead of him on the road, if not yet on time. Mehta got a turn at eating dust now all the way back to Nairobi.
Waldegaard’s Mercedes arrived at the midpoint in Nairobi a minute ahead of Mehta on points. Waldegaard went out front on the second leg, increasing his lead over second place Mehta.
But Mercedes reliability started to falter, as did their luck. Hannu Mikkola went down with axle failure and, while doing the repairs, Mikkolas’ co-driver was hit by another car, sending him to the hospital. Then later in the stage Waldegaard crashed and let Mehta take the lead again. Waldegaard’s Mercedes started overheating and soon fell further back. Opel was pretty much out of contention by this point, with constant punctures and various mechanical failures. Jean-Pierre Nicholas made a valiant run to keep up with the pack.

With Mercedes starting to fall back, it looked as if Mehta would have a nice dust free drive to his second straight Safari title, with Kallstrom in second. But the Safari threw its next set of curve balls at Nissan. First Mehtas car suffered a pair of punctures, allowing Andrew Cowan to take his Mercedes into the lead. Then Harry Kallstrom’s Violet snapped a valve, ending his rally.

The end of stage 2 saw Cowan leading by a minute, with Mehta second, Aaltonen back over 20 minutes in 3rd, Waldegaard a minute behind him in 4th and Preston and Kirkland in 5th and 6th respectively.

t looked as though Mercedes and Nissan would duel it out to the end. No so. First Waldegaard’s Mercedes went out with the same axle failure as Mikkola had suffered earlier, then Cowan in the lead suffered the same fate. Vic Preston was all Mercedes had left, and he was far back. Preston made a dash towards the front, but couldn’t catch the two leading Datsuns.

As the race came to an end and Mehta drove on problem free to victory, Aaltonen damaged his steering and limped into Nairobi 30 minutes back in second. Preston saved a little face for Mercedes coming in third. Mike Kirkland and Dave Haworth had their best finish to date bring in their Violet in 4th. Nissan had two more top ten finishers, with Yoshio Iwashita and Yoshimasa Nakahana of Japan bringing their privately entered Silvia S100 in 7th and John Hellier and co-Driver Chris Bates finishing in 9th, just ahead of Waldegaard.

Nissan and its drivers had proven that not only were the Violets reliable, but they could run as fast as almost anybody could; the horsepower advantage of Mercedes had effectively been nullified. Nissan had won the team prize again, and had had 11 of the 24 finishes in the race including the newer Silvia, the PA10 violets, the older 710’s, and even a 120y coupe.

The 1981 Marlboro Safari Rally

So how could Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty top two consecutive Safari wins? By trying for the Hat Trick. It would turn out to be the longest victory in the history of the rally, taking months after the race to resolve, with much bad blood between old friends.

Nissan had finally got its twin cam engine on the books as a legal entry, calling the car the Violet GT to distinguish it from the standard 160J/PA10. Shekhar and Mike Doughty were once again the lead team with Nissan, then Rauno Aaltonen and Lofty Drews also in a Violet GT, and Mike Kirkland and Haworth in the standard 160j. Timo Salonen was also driving for Nissan, but in a different car, the 200sx or Silvia. Nissan also entered a turbocharged Bluebird, but the car went out on the stage to Mombasa.

Mercedes had had enough and left Peugeot with the 504 and Opel with the Ascona to mount the competition against the seemingly unstoppable Datsuns. Dodge showed up as well with a set of Ramcharger trucks, the first American entry in 17 years.
safari rally
The dust was gone, but the rain was back and it was doing its best to make up for the previous year’s absence. The first section from Nairobi over the Mau escarpment was rerouted due to flooding, and the cars cruised on pavement almost all the way to Kisumu near Lake Victoria. With all the time allowed for the stage saved by driving the direct route, some drivers, including Aaltonen, had time to stop for a nice lunch at the Rift Valley Country Club. Of course even on the pavement the hazards of rallying couldn’t be avoided as 30 car received speeding tickets from Kenyan police officers, a new wrinkle in the sport. One team actually went out of the running on the pavement, the first Dodge team left with major transmission problems after only a short time on the road (God only knows how long they would’ve lasted on the dirt- always thought Ramchargers were junk).

The next morning the drivers were faced with a safari challenge that seemed almost insurmountable. In the span of just 24 hours, the equivalent of ten years worth of rain had fallen in the Cherangani Hills section of the course. Safari newcomer Anders Kullang took his Opel Ascona through the section with ease to take an eleven minute lead over the rest of the field.

Others weren’t so lucky. Timo Salonen in the Silvia and Guy Frequelin in the 504, in second and third that morning, both started to fall back. Jochi Klient, another Opel works driver, dropped over an hour behind with steering failure. Makinen and Frequelin both had problems on the second day with clutches in their Peugeots, due to the low gear pace of the race. The next two Ramchargers dropped well back with suspension and electrical problems. The roads developed deep ruts due to the hard pace of the race, causing many a car to go out with punctures.
All this mud and rain went in Nissan’s favor. By the end of the first leg Datsuns sat with Timo Salonen in second in the 200sx Silvia, Mehta and Doughty in 3rd, and Aaltonen and Drews in 4th. Anders Kullang kept his lead going in the Opel. Every team suffered from a plague of punctures due to the boulders that were being chewed up in the mud.

Mehta was third as the cars arrived back in Nairobi for the middle rest period. He next morning saw no let up to the rain and another 50 mile section was cancelled on the route to Mombasa due to heavy flooding. The conditions didn’t help the Peugeot teams of Makinen and Frequelin, as both teams had to retire after burning out their clutches. Datsun and Opel teams fought it out on the way to Mombasa and down the coast.

The next morning the teams were greeted with a bit of a reprieve as conditions grew drier and sunny. Timo Salonen charged ahead of Kullang’s Opel, only to crash his Silvia into a Land Rover. The Datsuns tough dependable nature began to fall into question as Mehta burnt a starter and Aaltonen’s car began to come apart at the seams. By the time the cars left Mombasa on Easter Saturday afternoon, only 39 remained, with 1500 miles to go. Kullang was still in the lead with his Opel with Mehta neck and neck behind him.
safari rally
Then “Safari Luck” struck another blow as Kullang, the leader for most of the race, toasted a cow with his Opel. He still lead, but not for long as he put his Opel in a ditch a short time later. The Peugeot teams weren’t having much luck either with clutch failures impending on Ambrosino’s and Lefebvre’s cars. The Datsuns were all that was really left of the leaders, and were now running 1 through 4 on time and on the road into Nairobi for the end of stage 2 .

The final leg saw Mehta lead Salonen and Aaltonen out of Nairobi in a rally that was now down to just 28 cars. Salonen wanted to win and Aaltonen wanted it even more, so they and Mehta ignored Nissan team orders to take it easy through the night and conserve the cars.
Around midnight all of the teams ran into a new delay. A section of the road had become submerged under 5 feet of water due to the unstoppable rain. The cars were hauled through with big trucks, but one of the Peugeots got stuck and was nearly swept away.

Flood damage to Mehtas car allowed Aaltonen to take the lead near Baringo despite team orders not to do so, but Mehta soon caught up and the two went at it no holds barred. Aaltonen was tired of being second and he wanted to win. Mehta was so mad that Aaltonen had ignored team orders that he actually rammed Aaltonen’s car. Aaltonen returned the favor, putting a large dent in Mehta’s Violet. Mehta lead by seconds at the final check point at Nyeri when Nissan team manager “Waka” told them to stop the nonsense. He told Aaltonen that Mehta was in the lead and that things were going to stay that way to the finish line. Aaltonen, a fierce competitor, was understandably furious, but followed orders anyway.

Mehta crossed the finish line in Nairobi 5 minutes ahead Aaltonen to take his 3rd straight Safari victory. Or did he?
shekhar mehta
Aaltonen protested the win, citing time he had lost earlier in the race due to a wrongly located time check, and on other stages. Initially race officials ruled in his favor, moving Mehta into second place 9 hours after the finish but that decision was overturned later on appeal. Apparently Aaltonen had no right to file the first appeal so, after much debate and much time, Mehta was awarded the win and Aaltonen was forced back into second. Mehta and Aaltonen had been good friends up to this point, but now became bitter enemies. Aaltonen never raced for Nissan again.

Nissan had their best performance ever in the rally, with Mike Kirkland coming in 3rd behind Aaltonen to sweep the podium for the team. Timo Salonen brought the Silvia in 4th, with Iwashita and Nakahara in 7th, and Shah and Rahim in 8th. Datsuns took 12 of the 21 finishing positions with teams driving everything from 180b’s to Silvia’s to older 710’s to every version of the Violet. Nissan won the team prize of course, capping a nearly perfect race with the exception of the Aaltonen -Mehta controversy.

The 1982 Marlboro Safari Rally

Everybody was watching Mehta and Aaltonen for this rally. Mehta was driving a 2 liter Violet GT again, while Aaltonen had taken a ride with Opel and their Ascona. Datsuns dominance of the event was starting to show, as fewer and fewer international entrants were willing to risk being defeated by the Japanese upstarts. Subaru and Mitsubishi were there in force, as were Opel, but other that a couple Porsches and some private entries the field was very limited.

Nissan entered both the PA10 Violet GT of Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty, and the VioletGTs/200sx. Another turbocharged Datsun Bluebird was in the field, but it failed to finish for the second straight year.

The first half of the race was relatively uneventful. The course was dry and dusty, with the exception of a few well placed mud holes that managed to swallow the occasional car and driver. One of the victims of this was Brit Tony Pond who was driving for Nissan. Every one of the leaders had some sort of problem or another. Aaltonen, the leader, broke a ball joint. Mehta had a differential failure, and Rohrl buried the second Opel in a mud hole. Timo Salonen had serious brake problems with his Silvia/Violet GTS. Munari was there driving a Porsche, but transmission troubles all but ended his race early on.
45 of the 73 original cars made it back to Nairobi in fairly good shape, with Aaltonen in first, Mehta 16 minutes behind, and Rohrl in the second Opel behind Mehta.

The second leg started out dry like the first. Noticeably absent on this leg was Munari and his Porsche who hadn’t even bothered trying to finish due to his transmission problems. Timo Salonen’s Datsun was out too, with a long list of complaints. Then the little things started to go wrong as usual. First Rohrl’s Opel blew its belts. Then local Rob Collinge’s Range Rover had its hood come loose causing him to crash blindly, breaking his front axle. And then Rauno Aaltonen had the toughest break of all. For some reason cars had been eating up rear differentials like popcorn on this rally. Nissan had gone through six on the first stage, and others had had similar experiences. Aaltonen wasn’t unlucky to lose an axle he was just unlucky enough to do it in the middle of nowhere. By the time a chase car reached him and axles could be swapped, he’d lost 113 minutes. Aaltonen was effectively out of reach of the lead, dashing his hopes of defeating his rival.

Back in Nairobi at the end of stage 2, it was Mehta in the lead, followed by the Opel of Rohrl, then Aaltonen back in third, followed by Mike Kirkland in his Violet GTS, then Tony Pond in another GTS.

The cars headed out for the last leg around Mount Kenya. Tony ponds caught and passed Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty on the road then cleared a path for them through the wildlife and other mobile road hazards. The road was dry and life was pretty mundane for the drivers, except for “the unlucky Finn”; Rauno Aaltonen threw a rod in an engine that had never thrown a rod in competition before, ending his 19th attempt to win the Safari.

Mehta cruised on to victory for the fourth and last time, while Tony Pond broke a suspension component, letting Mike Kirkland pass into 3rd. Second place was held by Rohrl and co-driver Geistorfer’s Opel.

The crowds cheered as local hero Mehta took the ramp back in Nairobi, setting a Safari Rally win total that has yet to be broken, and probably never will be. Mike Kirkland arrived third for his second podium finish in as many years. Tony Pond made a fabulous debut bring in his GTS in fourth, with local stars Jayant Shah and Aslam Khan making it 4 out of the top five for Nissan. Nissan had 7 of the 21 finishers in the race, another outstanding finish.

It was Mehta’s, and Nissans, last Safari win. 1983 saw a whole new Class system that basically eliminated the cars that had dominated before. Another arrival on the scene had an equal impact, the Audi Quattro, a car that would change the world of rallying forever. The dawn of the All Wheel Drive � Four Wheel drive had started. Subaru was in the game, as was Toyota, but Nissan never joined the party.
Nissan had some great successes, notably with Mike Kirkland in a 240RS(the rally version of the 240SX) placing third in 1985, then placing second in ’88 and ’89 in a 200sx. Mike was still with the team when Nissan pulled out of World Rally competition after the 1991 season.

Shekhar Mehta kept rallying for a couple more years until a serious accident forced him to retire in 1987. He joined the management team of the Safari Rally and lead the organization for quite a number of years.

Mike Doughty left Shekhar to organize the Safari Rally after their 1982 victory. He ran it for several years, including 1987 from his bed after he and Shekhar crashed badly during the Rally of the Pharoahs in Egypt.

Rauno Aaltonen gave up on the Rally in 1987 after 23 attempts. He still managed to pull off 12 top ten finishes, a fantastic record for any driver, but the outright win he wanted eluded him to the bitter end.

Edgar Herrmann quit 2 years earlier in 1985. Like Aaltonen, Edgar had 23 Safari attempts under his belt, but he only managed to finish 5 times, 4 of them with Datsuns, including his two wins.

Joginder Singh as far as I know is still racing on and off to this day. Jo has an incredible Rally record; 3 wins, 13 top ten finishes, and only 3 retirements in 22 years of Safari. Mehta and Waldegaard(4) may have more wins, but Singh is probably the greatest Safari driver ever. He died unfortunately in the U.K,These legends made safari rally more than a rally


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