Fujimoto made history by becoming the first and only Japanese driver to win the Safari Rally in 1995. Back then it was a 2-liter World Rally Championship round and he drove his Toyota Celica to victory in over 40 minutes – he even had time for a quick roll on day three!
Now, over 25 years later, this very Celica has undergone a complete restoration.
We caught up with Yoshio to talk about the car and his thoughts on Safari Rally Kenya returning to the FIA ââWorld Rally Championship next week (June 24-27).
Q: Yoshio, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your driving career in the 90s?
A: I founded Tein in 1985. I was the driver and my business partner was the passenger. We did a lot of rallies in Japan back then, but couldn’t find any good suspension. We decided that we should do the suspension ourselves. That was the start of the company in 1985.
The ambition was that we should make a profit and use it for rally activities in the World Rally Championship. We grew up step by step and had the chance to join Toyota Team Europe at the end of 1993.
From 1993 to 1996 we had our own activities of our company Tein – which we called Tein Sport. We drove the Asia-Pacific races of the World Rally Championship. Eventually I got the chance to join Toyota Team Europe in 1994 and 1995, and Toyota supported us until 1998.
Q: Is it true that before you won in 1995 you drove the entire route eight times?
A: Yes. In 1995 Toyota told me to go to Kenya and stay there for five months. I flew there in early January and did a lot of tests. At that time we carried out so-called high-speed tests. On the streets of Kenya, it was possible to explore everything in a Group A car – a real rally car!
I’ve done the recce eight times. That means I drove almost 15,000 km at rally speed. But the rally speed in Kenya is a little slower than a sprint rally because the car cannot survive.
Q: How was the Safari Rally then different from others in the championship?
A: The safari was very different from other rallies like Monte-Carlo, Great Britain, Sanremo and so on. The roads weren’t closed, so we needed a team helicopter in the sky to let us know what was ahead. Things like a local bus coming towards us or a giraffe – you had to slow down.
You can imagine going over a hill at full throttle in sixth gear, but suddenly a car came in the other direction. So we needed additional help.
Q: Were there any mishaps at the event?
A: On the third day I made a mistake because I had a choice. I used a new Michelin puncture protection tire, but this tire had a little less grip. I slipped out of the car, hit an embankment, and rolled – but only a very slow roll. It was just cosmetic damage so I was lucky.
Me and Arne [Hertz, co-driver] got out, and suddenly three or four Maasai people came. We got the car back on the road and drove on.
Q: That was lucky! It must have been a relief when you won?
A: Yes! After rolling, I immediately thought my rally was over. But when we got back on the road I thought, ‘Wow, I’m lucky, now I have a chance to win’. We fixed everything in service and it was possible to drive perfectly.
Between me and Kenjiro [Shinozuka], the residue was about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes left to catch, but it also had some damage and was late. After that I was just relaxed and cruising.
Q: The Celica looks great after its restoration. Is it exactly the car you won in?
A: Yes. After we won, Toyota Motor Company decided the car was unforgettable and brought it to Japan. In the end I decided to have the car converted myself and now I’m going back to Japan.
Q: There aren’t many Group A Celicas around these days. Was it difficult to get parts?
A: I had the car restored in Germany and there are still a lot of ex-Toyota Team Europe people there. They do a lot of restoring because there are still a lot of old Celica fans in the world. Some parts were rebuilt, some parts I could still buy on the market and some parts we made ourselves.
GALLERY: Yoshio Fujimoto’s Safari Winner Celica
Q: How do you feel about the Safari Rally’s return to the FIA ââWorld Rally Championship?
A: It’s very unique and very challenging. The rally is coming back to Kenya and I’m very happy about that. Kenya is one of my second homes and I have a lot of good memories there.
Q: Another Japanese star is driving a Toyota this year. What do you think of Takamoto Katsuta’s progress?
A: I’ve spoken to him a few times. He often crashed because he was coming out of Formula 3, so he thought he could remember the road everywhere. But now he understands.
The most important thing for rallying is experience. It’s not a circuit race and it’s not easy to remember everything everywhere. Tempo notes are important. To get to the top level, you need at least three to four years of experience in the WRC, because every rally has a completely different character.
Takamoto is fine. He just has to get to the finish line, not drive too fast and gain more experience, then he can be at the top of the podium.
- Full coverage of the Safari Rally Kenya will be available on WRC + All Live Here, including every stage broadcast as well as important interviews, features and expert analyzes from the service park.