Shekhar Mehta – Five Times Glory at the Safari

Back in the fifties, rallying always meant adventure. However, between mid-sixties and early seventies those long épreuves began a process of transformation in adopting the Scandinavian rally model, which led to the scenario we know nowadays – the event is divided in legs, each of them composed by a certain number of timed special stages on closed roads. But, even when this system prevailed, there were some rallies that maintained most of the elements of the “old system” on them – the most famous one was the East African Safari. It was a contest of endurance and skill on the East African savanna, battered by a scorching sun or demential rains, men and machine alone against the elements on open roads… And it was in that onstage that one driver excelled – Shekhar Mehta.

Shekhar Mehta (Facebook)

Chandrashekhar Mehta was born in his family’s farm near Lugazi, more or less 50 kilometers east of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, on the 20th June of 1945. As his name implies, Shekhar was from Indian ascent (more precisely, from Punjab), and his family had a wide range of affairs both in India and East Africa, mainly sugar and tea plantations, but also a BMW dealership for the British Colonies on the region. So, as it was natural for a son of a very rich family, Shekhar was sent with just five years old to an exclusive Swiss College and then proceeded to the renowned St.Paul’s School in London. And, as soon as he finished his studies, Mehta worked for a year on the London Stock Exchange and in a cement business owned by some relatives, before returning to Uganda with 20 years old, in 1965, to help his father Knimji with the family business, beginning with sugar, and only later reaching a position on the car dealership.

Lugazi, Buikwe District, Uganda: tea plantation – green fields of the Camellia sinensis plant – photo by M.Torres

Young Shekhar had developed a great passion for motor sport back in his days in UK and on his visits to India (having the usual adventures of an underaged driver) and, shortly after coming back to Uganda, he entered in his first races, doing some local hillclimbs and sprints in 1966 with a BMW 1800 from his family’s dealership. However, Mehta soon moved to rallying, much more popular in Africa, again with the BMW and also a Renault 16 – as he recalls “the BMW was one of the quickest cars around but there was no local experience on preparing it for the rallies that we did in Africa. And its speed was no help for its reliability. I decided that I needed a slower car that I would have to drive flat out if I was to learn” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67]. His results were quite promising, and he also debuted on the circuits with a BMW 2002ti on the Nakuru track, in Kenya, the only permanent racing venue existent in that region. But, even if Mehta hadn’t spent his youth trying his car on the dirt and muddy roads (like many of his African future rivals, more or less like the Scandinavians rallying even with the familiar tractors on snowy tracks), he soon proved to have quite an ability to adaptation, and in 1969 he won the East African touring car, saloon car, and hillclimb championships with the BMW, in matter of fact a pretty good achievement for someone who wasn’t a full-time driver.

Notwithstanding his excellent performances on the local racing scenario, it was on rallies that Mehta was at his best, and after some hard years of learning, in 1968 he entered a Peugeot 204 to the already famed Safari Rally. The French cars were widely used in Africa, one of its exponents being the Tanzanian driver Bert Shankland, and the men from Sochaux desired to promote the new 204 to replace the widely used 404, so they prepared some of them to the great marathon and offered them through the diverse dealers, Mehta being one of the clients: “It suited the rallies in Uganda where there weren’t any big hills and sharp bends so I was quite pleased with it. Then we did the 1968 Safari, which was quite wet. We had to use chains to get up the first section at Mau Narok. We had done about 25 per cent of the route and then got stuck coming up out of the Kerio Valley at Tambach. A friend in a Saab stopped to see if he could help. I told him he would have to back down and rush at the hill again but he just took first gear and drove off. I had learned one big thing: if it rained I was in trouble with the 204” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67].

Shekhar retired, but the next year he was back again, ending 27th, even if this time the weather was quite dry: “The major problem was that we had 27 punctures during the rally. It wasn’t a tyre problem but a wheel problem. The wheels were made of papier-mâché or something similar. You only had to look at a rock and the rim bent back letting all the air out. It became a nightmare of wheel changing and finding sufficient rims to continue” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67]. Mehta also found the car painfully slow and lost quite a big amount of time as he couldn’t comply with the average 100-mph speed at the liaisons: “Going on one long liaison towards Mombasa, we lost forty minutes and without stopping for anything. We had no trouble, went flat out the whole way and dropped forty minutes. The car would only do 82 mph. The problem with losing so much time was that we got no rest since the time lost had to be made up at the halts. […] With the heat in the car, we were so dehydrated that I couldn’t eat solids for a week after finishing. (But) the Peugeot […] taught you patience, which was something I didn’t have at that time because when we got to the end of the rally, I wanted to give up rallying” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67]. He would describe the importance of the Safari for any African rally driver the following way: “This is African entirely: in Africa the Safari is everything. If you break down one year you have wasted all your chances for another twelve months. In Europe there is another vital rally somewhere within a month or so” [Autosport, 1/2/1973, p. 40].

Safari 1969 (Google Images)

Question is, even for the local drivers, the Safari was a huge adventure and, apart a bunch of established stars, most of the drivers made his own entries and it implied a lot of practice and stamina to survive in those generally adverse conditions. By then, Mehta had made friends with a commercial society that imported Nissans/Datsuns and drove on the 1970 Safari a 510 loaned to Jack Simonian, but the engine broke on the first day.  Nevertheless in 1971 he was prepared to tackle again the great rally with a car of his own when Datsun – whose team was supposed to be Rauno Aaltonen and the locals Edgar Herrmann and Joginder Singh – lost the latter to Ford. Thus, the Japanese team, always eager to call African drivers, looked on Mehta’s rallying performances and took the risk of engaging him on the rally. It proved a wise decision, that would bind Shekhar to the Japanese manufacturer till the end of his career, saved for some exceptions. Soon the brand new Datsun 240Z proved to be better than his predecessors and a true “tank” in the sense it possessed a pretty good degree of endurance, and Edgar Herrmann – a Kenyan-based German driver – soon mixed up with the enormous contingent of European drivers present, and through a damp Uganda took the lead in front of Mehta, who was driving steadily and advancing forward as the rally toughness was more evident, while Aaltonen was plagued by mechanical troubles. Mehta even reached the lead, but was jammed in a mire already in Kenya and fell again to second, finishing shortly after his renowned teammate, with Bert Shankland, the leading Peugeot driver and third on standings 2 hours and 8 minutes behind Edgar…. Yes, it was the Safari!!! It was a dream debut with a works team for our men, which gave him a presence at the RAC, his first international outing.

Safari 1971 (Facebook)

Back in 1972 he was already under contract with Datsun, which would enter Shekhar on the Safari and occasional European venues, as during his long and successful career he never left his business interests nor local rally appearances. Sadly, this time his rally was plagued by troubles and he finished only tenth, but on his second international rally, the Acropolis, Mehta finished an impressive sixth and was near a top-10 placement on the even more unfamiliar terrain of the RAC when he crashed on the last night at Kielder Forest… If there were any doubts he was a rich Indian-African youngster which could only shine on his local roads, 1972 proved precisely the opposite. And on the opposite coast of Africa, Mehta was entered on the Bandama Rally on Ivory Coast for the first time, only to finish a section outside the allowed time limit… in a rally where everyone retired or was disqualified for the same reason!!!!! Never forget the Bandama of 1972 if you’re asked for a rally with no crews finishing!

Safari 1972 (Facebook)

Yet 1972 was significant for Mehta’s family due to the expulsion of any ethnical Asian from Uganda… The presence of such an ethnical minority dated back from the last decades of the XIX Century, when the British Crown imported cheap workforce from the British Raj (nowadays India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar) to work on the plantations, railway building or even at the offices. But there were far older settlements dating to the centennial trade routes between India, the Red Sea and East Africa (that commerce was only disrupted on the XVI Century with the arrival of the Portuguese), so it was normal that some of those laborers chose to stay and enlarge the existing Indian communities namely at Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. At the time of decolonization, the Asian minority enjoyed an important role on Southeast African economy as they held some important offices on the public system and a very important position on trade and even farming. The economic success of some members of this ethnicity led to some resentment in Uganda that grew during the sixties but definitively reached a peak with the coup d’état that gave the power to the general Idi Amin in 1971. The new president fueled the animosity against the Indians and accused them of dominating the Ugandan economy and hoarding wealth that should be in Ugandan hands. On the 7th of August of 1972, Amin issued a decree ordering all Asian citizens without Ugandan passport (most of them had the old British passport issued before the independence of Uganda in 1962) to leave within 90 days, with the exception of some professions such as teachers and doctors. That way more or less 60,000 people had to leave the country and the estates and goods were distributed among the president’s followers, which effectively destroyed Ugandan economy in short term. According to Martin Holmes profile about Mehta: “He first heard about General Amin’s plans on a car radio whilst towing a broken down rally car, and frankly disbelieved it. Uganda had always been a quiet country, but when he reached Kampala he found everything he has heard was true” [Autosport, 1/2/1973, p. 40].

Indian refugees from Uganda landing at Heathrow airport, London (Google Images)

The Mehtas weren’t an exception and they chose to leave immediately to neighboring Kenya, where they also had already important business interests, which saved the family from ruin. That’s the reason why in most of the books and websites Shekhar Mehta appears as a Kenyan, as he took that citizenship after the expulsion. The move didn’t affect his rallying career, and he was now on the traditional Safari homeland (the rally used to visit also Tanzania and Uganda, becoming restricted to Kenya only during the seventies). And he finally took his maiden WRC win at the 1973 Safari. It was expected a great fight between Datsun, Ford and Porsche but soon the challenge to the Japanese was practically over and the rally summed up to a match until the end between Mehta and Harry Källström, who finished within a minute of difference. However, Mehta’s win wasn’t secure because, after a crash with a cow, the right left front wing was damaged and had to be hacked off the car, so when they arrived to scrutineering they had lost the corresponding front headlight, which endeared the Kenyan a one-minute penalty!! Now Shekhar and Källström were tied in penalties (4m46s), which amounted 406 points, so the commissars decided to declare Mehta winner because he had spent most of the competition with less penalty than his rival – and, ironically, Shekhar was congratulated after the win by… Idi Amin: “I send to you my very best wishes and congratulations for you having won the East African Safari. Although the Safari this year was not a true East African event, since it took place only in Kenya and Tanzania because of the imperialists’ sabotage tactics and, although you are now a refugee in Nairobi after the milking of Uganda’s economy for the last 70 years, your success goes to show the determination of Ugandans. It further shows that Uganda has a good representative refugee who has been able to defeat powerful competitors.” No comments!!! During that year he drove for Datsun at Morocco, retiring after a dreadful crash (some by-passers even thinking about the possibility of a plane crash, such was the scatter of debris though the desert) and the 1000 Lakes (this time abandoned with mechanical problems), and ended a distant 37th at the RAC, before retiring at the Bandama Rally in Ivory Coast.

Safari 1973 – On the left, Harry Källström and Claes Billstam, on the right Shekhar Mehta and Lofty Drews. Note the damage on the front left side of Mehta’s Datsun (Facebook)

Mehta posing alongside his destroyed Datsun 240Z at Morocco, 1973 (Facebook)

The following season he was invited by Lancia to do a short international schedule, again starting at the Safari. Mehta recalled that “I got a call from Cesare Fiorio asking me to drive one of his works Lancia Fulvias. I went to see him and said that I would let him know. Then I rang Tony Fall who had driven Lancias and asked what he thought. He said that it would be no problem, that when you drive a Lancia you drive the best car. The only thing was that the money was not very good and you had to be careful about how you get paid” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67]. Sadly the Fulvia HF Coupé wasn’t shaped for the Safari roads and Mehta finished on a lowly 11th place: “After I drove the Lancia, on the Safari, I called Tony and said that it was the worst car that I’d ever driven, but that I got paid more than expected! The problem with the Fulvia was that it was a serious rally car for Europe but it just did not have enough suspension movement for Africa where it also had to carry more fuel and two spare wheels. It was quick and strong, but it was terribly difficult to drive on the rough (….)” [MotorSport, 8/1998, p.66-67].  Then Mehta and Fiat ventured on the 1974 World Cup Rally Marathon (London-Sahara-Munich), but this amazing rally was plagued by troubles: “A front spring broke in Morocco and as the Fulvia only has a single transverse leaf spring, this was rather serious. At the service at the border Lancia’s mechanic Gino Fraboni took one look under the bonnet and burst into tears at which point we realized that the problem was probably worse than we had thought. They had no replacement and the next service was 72 hours away in Nigeria, the other side of something called the Sahara Desert. So we drove on with no suspension. Not an experience I ever wish to repeat” [MotorSport, 74:8, p.67]. Of course, they were disqualified when arriving far outside time limit. Yet he finished the season in good fashion with an amazing fourth at the Sanremo (with the exquisite Beta Coupé instead of the Stratos of Munari & Co., finishing only 45 seconds behind the great Sandro), again proving he wasn’t by any means a capable driver only in his native Africa, before another retirement on the Bandama, where he had arranged a deal to drive a semi-works Alpine A110 1800.

Safari 1974 (Thomas Popper)

Mehta remained with Lancia until the 1975 Safari, this time retiring with another broken suspension on his Beta Coupé. Then he was invited back to Datsun and finished sixth in Morocco (another exceptionally hard rally) and seventh in Portugal. But, again, in 1976 luck eluded Shekhar on a Safari disputed under heavy rain, and an accident on a road section ended his race. As it would become usual, Datsun would draft Mehta to the hardest rallies of the season, both on WRC and ERC, and also allowing him to do some non-European or African rallies with local dealerships, and in that season Shekhar finished third on the Acropolis – while his teammate Källström won – and took a win in Cyprus, finishing then third on the Southern Cross Rally – the ancestor of the Austrlian round). Remaining with the 160J model, Mehta retired on his sole 1977 WRC outing at the Safari with a broken engine, and his best performance of the season were two sixth places, in Australia and on a rare appearance on tarmac at the Tulpenrallye.

Safari 1977 (Facebook)

However, 1978 bought an important change on Mehta’s personal life, as he married his occasional co-driver Yvonne Pratt after a ten-year courtship. She would become his usual co-driver save for the big marathons, where a fully experienced mechanical was needed to repair the car whenever the circumstances demanded it. So it was partnering Mike Doughty (with whom he did almost every Safari after 1971) that he started the Safari aboard the 160J, but again they were betrayed by the engine early in the rally. Back to Greece with his wife, Mehta finished a respectful third against much more powerful cars like the Fiat 131 Abarth. The season finished at the Bandama, now also a FIA Cup round, where he accepted the invitation to drive an Opel Ascona for the local dealer, but sadly the camshaft broke.

Shekhar and Yvonne Mehta after winning a Rally in Indonesia, 1976 (Facebook)

There were rumours he might be released by Datsun if there were no visible results but Mehta was back at the 1979 Safari, and he finally had chances by his side. The 160J was getting increasingly outdated, and the Mercedes 450SL of Waldegård, Mikkola and Preston Jr., as well as the Peugeot 504 V6 of Lampinen, Nicolas, Mäkinen and Lefèvre, and slightly less the works Fiat 131 Abarth of Munari, Alén and Röhrl were considered favourites. It was one of the most dantesque Safaris ever, heavy rains had swept all over Kenya the weeks before so the roads were flooded. When the drivers hit the waterlogged second stage the Mercedes and Peugeot challenge literally collapsed and Mehta took the command, not being bothered till the end, neither by his rivals nor by mechanical troubles. He did only one more race that year, the Cyprus Rally with a Peugeot 104 ZS, but again an outdated car prevented him to reach further than eighth place. Later in the season he gave an interview to Autosport, where he stated that there were no chance to do a complete season because he’d only accept it with a winning team, and most of them had a surplus of drivers, most of them ultra-fast Scandinavians. Thus there were no proper hopes.

Safari 1979 (Facebook)

Mercedes went back to the Safari in 1980 desiring a revenge, with the revised and more powerful 450 SLC. As expected, till the third stage the three-pointed star dominated, but then they suffered from consecutive suspension problems that literally emptied their stock of spares. Again, the strength of the venerable Datsun 160J prevailed over the speed and sheer power of the Mercedes and the works Opels, Mehta winning in front of his teammate Aaltonen. The marque from Rüsselsheim recognized Shekhar was a valuable asset on the Acropolis and engaged him, but a broken wheel stopped his rally too soon, and then he was back to Datsun to finish fourth at the Codasur Rally in Argentina. Then, he won the Himalayan Rally marathon between Mumbai and Narkanda, in his native India, aboard an Ascona 400, before ending the season again at the Ivory Coast WRC-round, retiring his Datsun when he swerved off the road to avoid a cyclist!! Since 1979 a Championship for Drivers was established and in 1980 Mehta finished ninth overall with 30 points! This year he also won two rounds and the overall at the Gulf Rally Challenge, which would morph into the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).

Safari 1980 (Facebook)

 

Datsun premiered the new Violet GT on the 1981 Safari, and this time the men form Tokyo appeared as clear favourites. In fact, the Datsuns were only defied by an astonishing débutant, Anders Kulläng, till the Swede retired after two crashes. Then, the fight went straight between the two long time Datsun leaders, Mehta and Aaltonen, and this time the Finn was giving it all to take the win he dreamt for so long. However, at the end of the leg that ended Anders’ challenge, Datsun’s manager Takashi Wakabayashi told their drivers to hold their positions, as the teams was on the verge of a superb result. However, Aaltonen wasn’t disposed to give Mehta the win so easily, and decided to keep pushing, surprising Mehta when he lost a big chunk of time on a quagmire. However, then it was the turn of Aaltonen to suffer mechanical issues and both Datsuns were driving very closely, so there were wide calls of both touching intentionally sometimes!! At the end, Mehta won by a small margin, but a roadbook mistake on the section on which he lost a lot of time led Aaltonen to protest the final result, but it was rejected (it was widely discussed if there were no further interests beyond the race…) and Mehta won his fourth Safari, while Datsun put four cars in the top-4. And, as 1981 was the beginning of the transition to 4-wheel drive primacy and then the Group B, Datsun saw a rare opportunity to challenge for the Manufacturers’ Title and widened their schedule, recalling Mehta for every tough event of the season. The Kenyan didn’t disappoint and finished fifth with the old 160J in Greece, then was an excellent second at the Codasur and could have finished on the same position in Brazil if not for a blown engine. And on a very though Ivory Coast Rally Mehta ended third, which put him fifth on the Drivers’ Championship and Datsun in second on the Manufacturers’. And Shekhar also took the first African Rally Championship ever.

Safari 1981 (Sukhdeep Panesar)

Datsun was part of the Nissan group since the thirties, but as Nissan had been involved with the Japanese Armed Forces during the WWII they use to export the cars branded as Datsun, the main concern being the USA Market. This situation remained unchanged till the 80’s, when within the framework of a reorganization Nissan decided to progressively name all the cars with their own name, beginning a transition period in 1982 with the aim of quenching Datsun brand till 1986. So Datsun’s farewell was on the snowy Jänner Rallye in Austria, probably a place where we had never expected to see Mehta, but he did a nice performance to finish sixth place, being the first after the strong local concurrence. Back to the Safari everyone expected the relentless fight between Aaltonen (now driving for Opel) and Mehta, after 1981’s events. It was again a terrific rally marked by extreme toughness – this time on the dry – that razed many squads. Immediately Aaltonen and Mehta went into the front, the Finnish appearing to be on the top, but at the middle of the second stage the engine of the Ascona 400 broke, leaving Mehta undisturbed till the end. Sadly, it would be his final win. Then Shekar went again to the Acropolis, were he ended fourth, the Nissan unable to match the new Audi Quattro and the Opels. His other two entries at New Zealand and Brazil ended with two broken engines.

Safari 1982 (Facebook)

For the 1983 season Nissan presented a new solid model, the 240RS, a very traditional concept of Group B. The re-branding and the new rules didn’t change the usual schedule, Nissan deciding to enter the toughest rallies to show the endurance virtues of the car, by themselves or the local dealers, with Mehta as team captain. But this time the car wasn’t reliable enough to support such a hard rally as the Safari, and Shekhar was one of the first to retire, with a broken engine. The following rounds were better: sixth at the Acropolis, followed by two fourths at New Zealand and Argentina (here he was invited to drive a third works Audi Quattro A2), and second on the ERC Halkidiki Rally, in the usual Greek demolishing roads, considerable and better equipped opposition, and leaving promising signs about the reliability of the new car.

Safari 1983 (Facebook)

Monte Carlo 1984 (Facebook)

1984 would be his busiest year ever. He finished tenth at the Jänner with an Opel, then debuted on the Monte Carlo with a Subaru Leone 1800! It was far before Subaru being known as a top rally manufacturer, but the Mehtas where Subaru dealers for East Africa and tried the adventure with a decent fourteenth place (sixth at the Group A classification). Then, back to Kenya, Nissan found they had a powerful rival, another Japanese team that, using the Datsun/Nissan concept had presented a new weapon… the Toyota Celica TCT which had debuted the year before at the 1000 Lakes and had already won the Bandama. The car proved a worthy heir of Datsun’s traditions and with the enormous African experience of Waldegård they won on their debut, Mehta being a lowly fifth after colliding with a matatu (the Kenyan name for a mini-bus). As I’ve said before, the 240RS was a more or less a Group 4 slightly adapted to be homologated as Group B and wasn’t a match for the more modern concepts, mainly the Quattro, nevertheless Mehta managed to finish regularly on the points at the selected WRC rounds: seventh at Acropolis, third at Ivory Coast (only beaten by the Quattros of Mikkola and Blomqvist, giving the team its best 1984 result) and a surprising eighth at the RAC. On the ERC he put another strong performance at the Halkidikis, but it wasn’t enough for the 037 of Carlo Capone, and finished fifth on the tarmac of the El Corte Inglés at Canary Islands.

Safari 1984 (Google Images)

In 1985 the 240RS weren’t again a match for the Toyotas and the Opel Manta 400 of Aaltonen and Weber on the Safari and Mehta crashed out by middle rally, then finished fourth at the Acropolis and Argentina, while retiring at New Zealand. He tried also the Hong Kong-Beijing Marathon but mechanical problems delayed him and only could do fifth, but would win at Morocco, no for a long time devoid of its WRC status. Unable to win the Safari, their main marketing aim, Nissan temporarily pulled off, which allowed Mehta to be engaged by Peugeot for the 1986 pre-Safari extensive test schedule and for the rally. The all-conquering Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 E2 was probably the best Group B at the moment and 1986 represented the apogee (and fall) of these supercars, so the French team expected to beat their usual rivals Lancia, and the dangerous Toyotas with such specialists as Mehta and Kankkunen (the Finn had won on his debut the year before). Sadly, as soon as the rally progressed, the Toyotas and their remarkable endurance prevailed over the sophistication of the “modern” Group B’s and, at Peugeot, it was Mehta who first suffered problems and was hopelessly delayed on the second stage, finishing a lowly eighth.

Safari 1985 (Facebook)

Safari 1986 (Facebook)

It’s far well-known the facts that led to the end of Group B and the revocation of Group S, the top class after 1986 on the main rallying championships being the Touring Cars, known as Group A. In protest with the rule change, Peugeot left the WRC, dedicating themselves to the great Cross-Country marathons such as the Dakar. Mehta was invited to join Kankkunen and Vatanen as a titular driver, his debut at the Dakar resulting on a good fifth place. He also drove the Peugeot 205 T16 at Pikes Peak, finishing fourth. On the WRC, he rejoined Nissan who had started a Gr.A project with the 200 SX, again the biggest aim being assess the car’s endurance on the harsher rallies. In fact, it was Datsun/Nissan’s policies since late-sixties due to marketing reasons, and they were eager to finally beat Toyota in Africa, but the other Group A’s were increasingly a menace. In fact, the Safari was no longer a match between the ultra-modern cars and the traditional, reliable and cumbersome Japanese models, Audi, Ford and VW immediately showing they were there to win. Mehta could expect at least a top-5 placement, but suffered a rear axle failure which ended his race. The same problem sidelined him at Acropolis, but back in the USA Olympus Rallye the Nissan finally finished a race, albeit in eighth place, miles away from the dominating Lancia Delta HF 4WD. Nissan’s best chance to win was at Ivory Coast, were neither of the big marques were present, and immediately both Mehta and Kirkaldy showed they could fight with the VW’s and even the new Supra Turbos. Sadly, Toyota retired after a tragic plane crash that killed some members of the team, and the rally turned into a fierce battle between Mehta and Eriksson’s VW, but the 200 SX couldn’t push the VW enough and Nissan ordered Shekhar to hold his second place. Later in the year, Mehta joined again Peugeot in Egypt to drive the Pharaohs Rallye… While leading, he suffered a high-speed crash over a sand dune, suffering serious spinal and neck injuries, and a collapsed lung. He went into a coma and was immediately evacuated to Paris where he spent two months, escaping death by miracle, and then transferred to London, spending long months in physiotherapy. His injuries effectively ended his career and left him with a permanent degree of disability.

Dakar 1987 (Facebook)

Ivory Coast 1987 (Facebook)

The terrible accident didn’t diminish his great passion on rallying, and when he went back to Kenya to reassume the family business Mehta served as assistant clerk of the course at the Safari right in 1989, and then held various positions on the Kenyan Federation and then at the FIA, being elected president of the FIA Rallies Commission in 1997. In 2000 he was promoted to the presidency of the new WRC Commission and held the post till the beginning of 2005, being recalled one year later when Jacques Régis took his leave but, sadly, Shekhar was already seriously ill and asked to postpone his inauguration, soon being admitted to a London hospital with serious hepatic problems, sequels from his dreadful crash in 87 and dying there on the 12th April of that year.

There are no doubts Shekhar Mehta was a truly talented driver, and even if his success seems circumscribed to Africa, we have to pay attention to the fact he never was a full-time professional and, in consequence, it was by far harder for him to have a complete schedule with a winning team, because Datsun/Nissan was mostly focused on some rounds, rarely venturing outside the harshest rallies. At the moment he remains the Safari win recordist, and probably the best Kenyan rally driver ever. Let’s celebrate his feats.

2 thoughts on “Shekhar Mehta – Five Times Glory at the Safari

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