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Kenyan rally drivers are breaking down barriers

Kenya doesn’t look like a global powerhouse when it comes to motorsport, but at the Safari Rally two pioneering local drivers, determined to break down barriers, lit up the famous event.

While Toyota’s Kalle Rovanpera cemented his reputation as a new young prodigy in the World Rally Championship by conquering the Safari, another success story unfolded on the Kenyan savannah. Part-time schoolteacher Maxine Wahome made history as the first woman to win a WRC support class since Isolde Holderied won a Group N Cup round in 1994, with victory in WRC3 .

But Wahome wasn’t the only local trailblazer, as paraplegic driver Nikhil Sachania inspired disabled drivers around the world by finishing the world’s toughest rally in the top 20.

Wahome’s success propelled the 26-year-old not only to national prominence but also to global stardom, with her achievements recognized by none other than seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, who shared the post of ‘Autosport celebrating this milestone.

Incredibly, Wahome’s success came just 12 months after starting rallying at Safari Rally 2021, and his victory came in his first event driving the M-Sport Poland-built Ford Fiesta Rally3. The daughter of a rally driver, Wahome has always had motorsport in her blood, which has given her an interest in anything with a motor.

Eleven years of motocross finally resulted in a foray into rallying after he convinced his father that it was time to get into rallying. In the space of a year, Wahome has enjoyed a meteoric rise, going from participating in the African Rally Championship events to a historic victory in WRC3.

MORE: Why the WRC Safari Tour is more than just a rally.

“My dad was in rallies in the 1980s and 1990s and it was watching him that I knew I wanted to do it,” says Wahome.

“I asked him one day and he told me the easiest thing to do was to do motocross and I did that for 11 years and finally told him it was time for a change. I got into Rallycross and last year we took part in the Safari Rallye WRC with my Subaru Impreza, so I’ve only been competing for a year.

“It’s definitely a big surprise for me.” [to win WRC3]. My goal was just to learn the car, so by learning the car every day, I think I improved my speed and reached the top position.

“Thursday was the first time I sat in this car on earth. I think the only tests I could do were on asphalt, which is completely different for the Safari. I decided to go step by step and learn, that’s what allowed me to get there. »

Despite tackling a tougher Safari than on her debut last year, Wahome managed to complete the grueling 19 stages to win the WRC’s third class by 25 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of Jeremy Wahome. (no relation), while McRae Kimathi completed an all Kenyan podium. To top it all off, Wahome finished the event in 16th place overall, one place behind M-Sport Rally1 driver Gus Greensmith.

MORE: African McRae wants to become a WRC trailblazer

Inspired by 2016 Australian Rally Champion and last year’s Extreme E winner, Molly Taylor, Wahome has been overwhelmed by success, but is fully aware of the milestone she has taken to help inspire a new wave of female pilots in the sport.

“It was so amazing when I did my interview that I was left speechless,” she says. “I couldn’t believe I had made it and I was proud of myself and my team. I am proud to have made history.

“That’s definitely it. [the Junior WRC] is [a goal]. For my first time behind the wheel of this car, I would like to have more driving time, but my other objective is to stop at this level. Maxine Wahome

” This [helping women into motorsport] It’s something I always think about, whatever car I drive, I would like to encourage more women to come back to this sport. It’s been a long time since a woman has been at the top, so that’s also my other goal. It’s about empowering women.

“I admire Molly Taylor. She has been an inspiration and role model to me and it would be great to meet her one day. »

Although Wahome was a new face on the world stage, it was hard not to be aware of his presence in Kenya, his face displayed on giant billboards as a member of a quartet of local rally drivers part of the FIA Rally Star programme, which aims to discover new young talent at world level. Wahome was joined by WRC regular Junior McRae Kimathi, Jeremiah Wahome (also unrelated) and Hamza Anwar, all four driving Fiesta Rally3s backed by national telecommunications company Safaricom.

Rallying is deeply rooted in Kenya thanks to the Safari Rally which has become the country’s biggest sporting event since its inception in 1953, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Consequently, when the WRC came to Kenya, these four faces became the headliners of the event, unleashing hordes of local fans to cheer on the quartet.

Prior to the Safari Rally, motorsport was purely a hobby, an activity in addition to golf which Wahome occasionally participates in when not working as a children’s teacher. However, following the success of the rally, motorsport could soon become more than a hobby.

It could be the first step towards a more regular participation in the WRC. The support hasn’t stopped since the event, with Safaricom offering Wahome one million Kenyan shillings (£7,000) as a bounty, while also confirming outings to WRC events in Estonia (July 14-17) and at the Acropolis Rally in Greece (8-11 September). It looks like the Junior WRC could soon add its second Kenyan regular and first female to its roster.

” It is certain that [the Junior WRC] is [a goal] “, she added. “For my first time in this car, I would like to have more driving time, but that’s my other objective: to stop to get there. »

While Wahome is now spearheading a new wave of African talent, paraplegic driver Sachania has a mission of her own: to prove to others facing similar challenges in life that motorsport is still a viable discipline. .

Born in the UK to Kenyan-Indian parents before moving to Kenya aged five, Sachania saw his world turned upside down following a quad bike accident while training in 2011. The petulant, then The 22-year-old was rushed to hospital in Nairobi, but the facility did not have the equipment to perform the operation, necessitating a transfer to India. This is where it was confirmed that he would never walk again.

It’s a blow to his life and the hope of pursuing his passion for motorsport hangs by a thread. However, three years after that tragic crash, Sachania got back behind the wheel as Kenya’s first paraplegic rally driver, after refusing to give up on his dream.

After getting a Fiat Punto equipped with a manual control mechanism in Spain, he has now switched to a Mitsubishi Evo X using the same power transmission system. Sachania is able to drive thanks to two rings attached to the steering wheel. The first, located at the front, acts as an accelerator when pressure is exerted downwards, while the second, located at the rear, is pulled upwards to activate the brakes.

Last month, Sachania took part in the Safari Rally for the second time and he continued to defy his handicap by finishing in an impressive 18th place out of 43 participants.

“Even before my accident, I always liked speed and adrenaline, so I wanted to do that,” he told Autosport. “It was tough for my family and friends to go back to doing that thing that put me in a wheelchair, but I was excited and wanted to prove I could still do it.

“With the WRC coming to Kenya, I think word has spread and I’m grateful for that, and hope it inspires others in my situation. We can do whatever we want if we put our minds to it. The technology is available and if you are brave enough you can come to Kenya and do the Safari Rally.

“It is the spirit that takes precedence over matter, that is my main advice”. Nikhil Sachania

“There are people who still don’t believe that I drive. There are places we go to in Kenya that are quite remote, so when they see me getting out of the car in my chair, it opens their jaws. It’s a real crowd pleaser and a real talking point.”

For those inspired by her exploits, Sachania has some advice.

“Mind over matter is my main advice,” he says. “It is getting easier and easier to get into motorsport, the FIA ​​has created a full commission for disabled drivers and they have helped me a lot. »

Africa may still be an emerging force in global motorsport, but Wahome and Sachania are proof that there are determined drivers out there ready to break boundaries to compete on the world stage.

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