By Stephen Macharia – (@SN_Macharia on Twitter)
Ayuko’s motivation to join motor racing was predicated on a paradox. She was battling an inherent tachophobia – fear for speed- after her father died in a road crash. To cure her fear of speed, she chose motor sports. For the past decade, Ayuko, a certified Project Management professional, has spent most of her weekends on race tracks chasing titles and fulfilling her dreams. She spoke to AutoNews Magazine about her life as a rally navigator.
You are one of the most visible women in motor sports. How did you join motor racing? This is interesting.
I joined rallying in 2011 after completing rally classes a year earlier. But I began as a volunteer safety marshal for the Safari Rally in 2010 and later started doing rally controls. The competitors lived through a lot of fun and I decided to fight for a place inside the car.
That year, I navigated the late Brian Thairu in Mombasa Rally racing in a Peugeot 206. We finished the rally and I felt very motivated. In 2012, the car developed mechanical problems and I decided to switch drivers. I have sat with many other drivers since then. I got very excited when we finished fourth in a Machakos Rally.
My biggest score in the sport came in 2013 when I navigated George Njoroge and won the Specially Prepared Vehicles (SPV) class. I participated in the WRC Safari Rally held last year and finished the rally.
What motivated you to join motor sports?
To overcome fear for speed (laughs). My mother is an incredibly fast driver. Growing up, she used to drive on our way to Western Kenya and I always feared for a crash. My father died in a road crash and I developed a phobia for vehicles.
I used to hate road trips, especially when my mother was the driver. I needed something to help me overcome that phobia and there was only one direction – motor sports. She used to make us change tyres on the highways when we got a puncture and also taught me basic mechanics. I joined rally school and the rest is history.
What’s the work of a rally navigator?
Being a navigator is not as simple as people imagine. It takes discipline, physical fitness and mental preparedness. A navigator should stay alert. Good navigators need a couple of hands in races. A navigator calls the pace notes, manages the time card, and manages the driver to stay alert. In case of an incident, the organizers call the navigator first. It is not for the fainthearted. A simple mistake may cost you a tournament. A navigator must keep up with the speed of the driver in calling the notes. This sport has little room for lapses in concentration.
What else do rally navigators do?
They oversee the management of the vehicle. When a car gets inside the designated service park, the navigator ensures that the mechanics work on the car. But there is more; the navigator has to ensure that the mechanics finish the work within the time allocated for service.
Inside competitive sections, the navigator becomes the ultimate mechanic in the event of any mechanical issues. Navigators also keep the pace notes and timecards. These are the two things you cannot lose in a competition.
Well, after a decade in racing are you now a better driver than your mother?
Wow! I don’t think so. She is still very good on the road. She always observes traffic rules to the letter but I think she can beat me on a road trip (smiles). At her age, she is still very alert on the road. It always amazes me. You are one of the most consistent women in motor sports. How do you give back to society? I train and mentor women in the sport. Currently, I am Maxi Wahome’s navigator, the youngest rally driver in Kenya. After a decade of rallying, I decided to sit with a young driver and give her an opportunity to race. We won the Division II category. It feels very nice. I am also a board member in a NGO called Angel Centre for Abandoned Children.
Linet Ayuko (right) poses for a photo with Maxi Wahome. Image Courtesy of Linet Ayuko
Comparing motor racing a decade ago and now, what do you think has changed?
There has been changes, that’s for sure. For example, organizers stopped giving out pace notes. Rally crew write their notes when they go for reconnaissance. That allows crew to grade corners differently based on the car set up.
When I started racing, all competitors were being given the pace notes, a road book, and tulips ( a graphical portrayal of a rally route). We were spoilt to say the least. Today, the situation is very different. Competitors make their own notes during reconnaissance. Rally organisers only provide the tulips. The grading of corners and other road features is entirely left to the rally crew. Other than that, technology has improved. Contemporary rally cars come equipped sophisticated technology aimed at improving racing experience.
What can you say is the highlight of your decade in motor sports?
Taking part in WRC Safari Rally in 2021. It was a big moment for me despite the challenges we faced. I finished the rally.
In what ways are rally cars different from standard vehicles?
Rally cars are very different from standard vehicles. The cars are equipped with FIA-approved bucket seats. Crew sink into the seats to avoid any side movements incase of a crash or roll. Rally cars also come equipped with antiroll cage, and five-pointer safety belts that keep crew stationary. But that is not all; there are a couple of other safety features. Competitors wear fire proof clothing, shoes, socks, and helmets. At the start of the race, organizers ensure that all competitors fasten their belts and wear FIA approved helmets.
Do you sometimes get the rally bug when driving on the highways?
Rally regulations bar me from dangerous driving. People in motor sports are road safety ambassadors. When I want to race, I do it in the right places – during sanctioned competitions.
I have been involved in crashes during races and got out of the vehicle unhurt most of the time. That is not likely to be the case when crashes involve standard vehicles. Rally cars have enhanced safety.