Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Karim Hijri most influential Ugandan Rally driver with the most ex-works rally cars ever in Africa

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Is the three-time NRC champion Karim Hirji plotting a return to rally?

When you mention the name Karim Hirji. Dembe Rally Team [DRT] is what comes to the minds of many of the yesteryears Uganda rally fans and some of European works teams like TTE plus some great African drivers. Karim and his Dembe rally team was one of the greatest game-changers in the history of rallying in Uganda.

When Karim Hirji first appeared at motorsport related event during the treasure hunt competition which was organized at Speke Hotel in Kampala driving a Hyundai Pony pick-up in about 1985, no one paid him much attention. However, when later in the same year he acquired and rallied a Datsun 710 and a Nissan PA10 in quick succession – the fans started to notice.

In the next 20 years of rallying Karim owned/drove a multitude of ex-works cars which included – a Datsun 710, Datsun Debe, Nissan PA10, Talbot Sunbeam, Toyota Panel Van, Nissan 240RS, Ford Escort Rs2000, Golf GTI, Toyota Supra, Nissan 200SX Silvia, Subaru Legacy RS, Toyota Celica ST185, Toyota Celica ST205 and Subaru Impreza WRC S4 to mention but a few.

Karim then put together the formidable Dembe Rally Team which included among others topline drivers like Jimmy Dean, Kaka Jnr, Gerald Kiddu and Ranjit Kuku. The navigators included Frank Nekusa, George Bitature, David Ssebyala and David Mayanja. It was with this team that he set out to do battle against likes of Sam Ssali, Jolly Lutaaya, Paddy Blick and Yusuf Karmali.

One of the finest moments of Karim’s career came on the 1994 Safari Rally – reputed to be the toughest rally on the WRC calendar.

When two of the four factory Toyota Celica’s driven by a former world champion Juha Kankunnen and Japanese champion Yoshio Fujimoto dropped out in the first section, Karim found himself as one of the leading Toyota’s left in the rally and this prompted TTE to provide technical support for to the privateer crew of Hirji and Nekusa. They went ahead to finish seventh overall and second among the private teams scoring 4 WRC drivers’ championship points in the process.

Karim drove and finished three more Safaris from 1996 to 1998 where he placed 10th, 14th and 10th respectively.

Karim was generous to fault and would always help out other crews even during a rally. In the 1998, Pearl of Africa rally, he stopped in the stage to give Emma Katto two spare tires. This cost him time and the rally win because at the end of the rally he was tied with Charles Muhangi on time and Muhangi was declared winner on a tie-breaker since he had won the first section. Other drivers from that era including his old rival Sam Ssali have only good things to say about this generosity.

Perhaps what was the lowest point of his career came during the 1999 Pearl of Africa in the sugar plantations of Lugazi. A flying Karim looked death in the face but lived to tell the story.

As the story goes, Karim was moving at about 210 kph in that section when suddenly a sugar cane carrier blocked his way, he hit the brakes and skidded for about 100 meters before slamming into the tractor-trailer at a very high rate of speed. Karim and his navigator Frank Nekusa managed to escape the burning wreck, the beloved Toyota Celica GT4 ST205(Surambaya) was reduced to ashes.

Karim’s celica ST205 on fire pearl Rally 1999

Karim then acquired the ex-Colin McRae Subaru Impreza WRC (R17WRC) – which until today was the only privately owned WRC car on the African continent. He however retired soon after that probably due to the accident in Lugazi the previous year. R17WRC was acquired by Emma Katto at this point.

By the time he retired from active motorsports Karim had won a hat-trick of National Rally Championships from 1993 -1995.

Early this year 2020 Karim was seen testing his Mitsubishi EVOX R4 at Busiika Motorsports Arena. Is he plotting for a big return to the sport that he loved and gave so much?

Well watch this space at only Hapasport

Credit to Dave Jones and Joshua Mayanja.

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  1. In 1996, Karim went to Kenya to race in his ST185. The Toyota Team was disqualified from cheating in the previous Rally of Catalunya in Spain. While the works team was disqualified, the cars could be driven by private teams. Karim bought one of the ST205 and the other was given to Ian Duncan sipported by the works team mechanics. Ian Duncan fell out and the mechanics set out help Karim.

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