This story begins on the fifth day of the Dakar at the start of the year. It’s late at night at the bivouac in San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina, a scene of frenetic activity. Mechanics are furiously mending their cars, bikes and quads; drivers and riders have finished working on their road books and are asleep in their motor homes (or, for those on a budget, tents); the trucks are just coming in, the ground shuddering as a Kamaz rumbles past me; and I slide into a spot of day dreaming. Maybe day dreaming is not the appropriate word considering it’s late at night but I’ll describe the picture being painted in my head: it’s that of your correspondent – a little older, a little greyer, rocking a beard – back at the Dakar, but this time with a competitor tag round his neck.
The next morning I watch C S Santosh being flagged off at half past four. Five years ago if somebody had suggested an Indian would take part in the world’s greatest motorsport event I’d have laughed at his face but here’s an Indian rider who showed the rest of the country that the Dakar wasn’t an impossible dream. Just watching him go through hell and back, day after day on the Dakar, is deeply inspirational and a match lights up in my head.
“Bro, I want to do the ’Storm”, I ping Aniruddha. Aniruddha, henceforth referred to as Anu in the interests of brevity, is my go-to guy for anything to do with motorsport, especially rallying. He’s the guy who brought everything and everybody together to kick-start our national championship rally team Slideways Industries. He has also competed twice in the Indian version of the Dakar, the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm, and so knows what it takes.
“You mad or what?” replies Anu. “Rally starts in 3 weeks.”
And so begins a series of extraordinary events…
Meet the ’ol girl
On Republic Day a friend at Maruti Suzuki tags me in a tweet, a picture of a Gypsy leading the Presidential convoy, the caption says 30 years and still going strong. I can only think of the Merc G-Wagen with a longer lifespan and when you think of it, isn’t that a remarkable innings? Our armed forces still swear by it. The Gerrari boy’s wildly modified Gypsy won last year’s Rain Forest Challenge. And it remains the go-to rally car for rally raid events across the country. Of course you could do it in a Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara but the only one I could find, at two week’s notice, carried a thirty lakh rupee price tag! Rent for a Gypsy is under a lakh of rupees. Service and spares is another lakh of rupees. And that’s that. It’s a remarkably affordable rally car, a remarkably resilient and tough rally car. You might break down, the Gypsy will never break down. Except, the Gypsy I’m staring at looks like it has been to both the wars on the western front.
I can’t really blame my friend Sandeep Sharma, a.k.a Sandy, for finding this Army-green Gypsy for me – I gave him three days notice. But that’s the thing about the Gypsy, no matter what it looks like, no matter what you think it can or cannot do, the Gypsy will keep on going. I feel sorry for the hell we will be puting it through in the Rajasthan theatre but I don’t think the Gypsy needs my sympathy.
No time to waste then. First things first we slapped on a fresh set tyres, instantly doubling both the value and capability of the Gypsy. Turns out it was the only thing to work flawlessly through out the rally but we will come to that later.
Then it was off to a spare part market to get the Gypsy ready for battle. Old windscreen is kicked out (I’m not exaggerating, kicked out!) and a new one goes into the rubber beading using a rope trick, no sealant business here. New tail lamps and headlamps. Vents for the roof scoop (which fell off in two hours). New horns. New fuses. Stickers bearing our names and blood group. A bracket for the spare wheels. In between all this Anu, who has gone to pick up the Hella 3000 auxiliary lights, calls and asks how the Gypsy is looking.
“Feels tight”, I lie through my teeth. Don’t want him taking the next flight back to Pune!
Next morning we realise the extent of our very own unpreparedness. We don’t have our insurance in place, or indemnities, or pictures, or a tow rope, or a GPS, or a medical kit… I could go on with all that we did not have. In my defence, in all my years of rallying, Nikhil Pai my regular co-driver would handle all this. Anyways the Northern Motorsport guys are super organised and I also discover a smile can take you very far in pre-event documentation. An hour later our Gypsy is in the stickering bay where the visual appeal of the ’ol girl is doubled. And then we fail technical scrutiny.
Turns out the thickness mandated for the fuel tank guard has gone up and it has taken everybody unawares. So it’s off to a mechanic to get that sorted out, who in the process slices a wire that turns out to be very important in getting the Gypsy cranked up, and by the time we are done the scrutineers have gone home.
Next morning we get all the OK stickers. Take the ceremonial start in the afternoon, buy a bunch of supplies from Big Bazaar and head off to Hanumangarh – an eight-hour drive that gets me reacquainted with a non-power steering car after, I think, 15 years.
I ask Sandy who will set up the Gypsy. What set up, he asks incredulously. I’ve rallied a fair bit and even when I competed in the Esteem and Baleno we used to set up our cars. Tear up and down an empty road with our tuner sitting in the passenger seat with a laptop tuning the ECU. More tearing up and down a twisty road to fine tune the suspension settings. With the Gypsy there’s nothing. Forget Reigers or anything, it runs original shocks though with two dampers at every corner. And… wait for this… it still runs leaf springs, though they’re stiffer Tiger leaf springs. Wheel alignment? We don’t even balance the wheels!
If I can give you just one piece of advice it will be this – don’t wake up three weeks before a cross-country rally. We didn’t test our car, didn’t spend time in a workshop with it, didn’t learn how to drive it, and we were going to pay the price for it all.
Driving to Hanumangarh we discovered that the transfer case was jammed and wouldn’t shift into four-low. Luckily RK, our service crew chief, had anticipated problems with our ’ol girl and had hired a workshop where his guys worked through the night to get her in some sort of shape for the start of the rally.
Day one, stage one. Sandy comes up to me. “Do not drive this like your INRC car.” What he means is if I barrel into a corner at the speed I am used to we will be on our roof. It means if I chuck it into a corner like I have been taught, we will understeer into Pakistan. It means if I attack a bump like you must in an INRC event, our spines will be crushed.
As we chew the kilometres I drive the Gypsy like we are in Rally Sweden, using the sand banks to bounce it back on track (which Aman later tells me is the completely wrong thing to do). Not only is there no power steering but the steering has so much play that I’m sawing at the ’wheel just to keep it straight. It’s exhausting work, made even more exhausting by the fact that she has an overheating problem. And on sand there’s so much resistance that it feels like it isn’t moving; I keep screaming at the ’ol girl to move, move, move and if I pressed the throttle any harder there would be a hole in the firewall.
Half way into the stage the temperature needle is above the H mark and Anu tells me to stick it in fifth and save the engine. In first service Sanjay Agarwal, a fellow competitor driving a Franken-Vitara (V6 motor from the old XL7 into the body shell of the 2.4 Vitara) retards the timing so the engine runs cooler. While that has a slight benefit it reduces the power even more. More overheating on the next two stages and on the final transport to Bikaner, the engine boils over, the coolant bottle explodes and steam rises from the bonnet.
Fortunately for us RK’s service team is just behind and we drain half a water tanker into the radiator, realise it is choked, replace the radiator and limp to the final time control in Bikaner before handing the Gypsy to RK where they again work through the night to keep me in the competition.
Where’s the nearest airport?
Eight kilometres into the first stage of day two I’m parked up, figuring out the quickest way to get back to Pune. The engine died on us. First we think it has overheated and blown but it’s still cranking over (not firing) so it has to be something electrical. We check, swap and replace all the fuses. Nada. Swap and replace the two relays. No go. Check all the wire, battery terminals. Nothing. Anu says it’s going to be a long day before we’re towed out of this mess. I look around and there’s not a single tree to sit under while I figure out options on the Make My Trip app.
And then we meet Ralli
What a spectacularly named rallyist! Akshay Ralli and his buddy Rohit Chhoker are first time rallyists and in all the excitement had forgotten to pick up their time card at the day’s start in Bikaner. Naturally they were disqualified when they came to the start of the stage but after much pleading the Sweeper Car allowed them to follow him to get a taste of the dunes before heading back home.
With nothing to gain or lose our new best friends are happy to help us out and with our tow strap latched on to Ralli’s Team Godwin Gypsy we towed ourselves back to Bikaner where, as luck would have it, we bumped into our service crew chilling at a dhaba. We also repay the favour and get RK to sort out some issues with Ralli’s Gypsy. These guys are running in the Ndure class that while running to the TSD format takes the same route as the Xtreme guys. And the average speeds on the sand stages are high enough for them to have to really drive their heart out.
The Ndure and the Xplore (for two-wheel drive cars, skipping the dunes) is where the next generation of rally drivers will come from and I personally feel these guys should be supported and promoted even more than the Xtreme competitors. After all this is where I graduated from, after winning the TSD category, overall (no Ndure or Xplore classifications back then), back in 2004.
Never, ever, say never
In a rally, when you’re out, you’re out. You can re-join for leg points but you’re out of the overall standings. Except this is a cross-country rally, spanning a week, and just like in the Dakar competitors can re-join despite DNF-ing (Did Not Finish) the previous day. There’s a caveat though and the truckload of penalties we were slapped with saw us start the third day at the very back of the field. Dead freaking last! I really, really wanted to go back home but Anu, a true-blue sportsman if there were any, insisted we carry on. “Anything can happen. We
cannot quit. We have to continue. We have to reach Jodhpur.” There’s always a silver lining though and for us it was the fact that there wasn’t anybody behind to overtake our sputtering Gypsy.
Day three was a monster day with a monster 198km stage. Can you imagine driving for over four hours, flat out… in something that has no power steering, if I need to remind you. Three service points were identified in the stage but the clock would keep ticking and all the time spent in service would be added to our stage time. I mull over skipping service and making up some time but quickly dismiss the thought when the engine temperature needle crosses the H mark in the first five kilometres. I stick it in fifth gear and ask Anu to keep an eye out for huts that we could take shelter in when the car packs up.
Being down on power we get stuck in a dune just 5km short of our service crew waiting for us at the 97km mark. Luckily the Gypsy is a light vehicle and some shovelling and back-and-forth rocking is enough to pry her loose. I reverse back down, take a longer run up, go flat out over some vicious ruts so as not to lose momentum and finally make it up, seeing stars after banging my head against the roll cage. 5km later we meet our service crew, pour water over the radiator, dump 20 litres of fuel (we don’t have an auxiliary tank either!) and are back off.
It turns out to be an eventful stage. Despite the ’ol girl being down on power we overtake a bunch of Gypsys. We even spend 20 minutes yanking Bani Yadav who had managed to beach herself spectacularly. Fellow competitors helped us out when we broke down on day two and it is only right that we pay our dues and help out a stricken competitor. But despite all this we still clock the second fastest time in our T2 class.
Much to our surprise the ’ol girl made it to the end of the stage and as we chug back to Jaisalmer she stutters, putters and breaks down 20km short of the city. And that’s where our luck turns. Couple of Rajasthanis taking fuel to their village on the Pak border give us 10 litres and we finally discover the silent villain. Turns out the fuel pump was faulty all throughout and was robbing us of power. RK replaces it in overnight service, advances the ignition timing back to where it should be, connects the fan directly to the crank to sort out the overheating and the next day it’s like we have a new car to ourselves. The 20 horses that were sleeping suddenly wake up and – finally! – we are no longer a disgrace to the rallying fraternity.
Two big Hella auxiliary lamps add twenty bhp to a rally car, at least in the driver’s head. It looks so bloody cool! And rallying in the night is a fantastic experience. Of course I’m a bit knackered thanks to the previous day’s struggles but as we start the 100km night stage at 3 in the morning, I’m fully charged up. And with the Gypsy finally working properly we make solid time. The Hellas only light up the track in front of you so there’s no distraction from the scenery; it focuses the mind. The cooler temperatures make it more comfortable. And it somehow feels more peaceful. Calmer, weird as it might sound.
Forget driving, the tricky part of night rallying is navigation and Anu is a bit stressed. This the first time he is co-driving and I must say he’s doing a spectacular job of it, though he has become a little hoarse after our intercom went kaput on the long stage.
Unlike an INRC rally where you recce the stage before the rally, in a cross-country rally you are given GPS tracks the night before the stage. You go in blind. The roadbook only marks out the major turns, cautions and direction changes but the co-driver doesn’t have advance information on every corner to give the driver. Instead his head is buried in two GPS units as he tracks the way points and ensures we are on the right track and don’t miss way points or stray into Pakistan. The bits where the track splits into two or three, staying on the right track becomes really tricky at night. It’s a completely different experience to stage rallying and, dare I say it, equally enjoyable.
As is the norm ever since we restarted and were pushed to the back of the grid we catch the first Gypsy within 7km, but after struggling past we realise overtaking at night isn’t going to be as easy as we’ve experienced in the day. The next one is caught and passed in the next 5km, again after nearly pushing him off the track. But then we get stuck from the 30km to well past the 80km mark by the number #120 Gypsy who refuses to let us past despite being way quicker. What makes overtaking at night even more difficult is that the sand kicked up by the car in front blinds you, you can’t go off-track to take another path to overtake and in the night you can’t see whether there’s a ditch or a drop on the sides so you don’t want to bump and push the other competitor into a big accident. We only get past when Anu makes a good navigation call. Yet, despite being stuck for over 50km, our stage time is in the top five. The ’ol girl is finally running!
Overtaking is for the racetrack
The last stage of the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm is a short and fast 40km stage. After the shenanigans of the night stage I’m fully charged up and (ridiculous as it might sound) our car is finally working properly. In the first 10km I catch and pass #126. In the next 5km I pass #130. In another kilometre, I catch three Gypsys dicing with each other, who have forgotten that rubbing fenders is best left for the racetrack where there’s runoff and tyre barriers.
I’ve made up 5 minutes in 20km (cars are left at 1min intervals) but still they won’t let me pass. After being held up by #120 on the night stage I was fully charged and cut past #128 & #120 before they could even realise I was on their bumper. Now to pass #116 who is in a much faster Gypsy, the same lady I had towed out of the stage to keep her in the competition. Anu calls a 90 left ahead. I see the track ahead and cut right across the corner praying there are no ditches to crash into. She sees me cutting across yet tries to nose ahead and my rear bumper smashes into her front left. And despite all this we set the second fastest time overall. It has taken me the very last stage of the rally but we have finally shown the grid that we aren’t hopeless drivers.
Protests and shenanigans
On the agonising six hour transport to Jodhpur we do some mental math. If we’ve been overtaking cars on every stage for the past three days and making time hand over fist how the hell are we still fifth and dead last in our class? Much head scratching and written requests to the results room reveals we were given two extra hours of penalties for the day we broke down. From dead last we shoot up to second in class! And then two days after the event we get a call telling us that penalities were incorrectly applied and we actually finished third.
Meanwhile Northern Motorsport takes cognisance of our complaint about #120’s dangerous driving and slaps him with an hour and fifteen minutes of penalties. As expected he goes mental thinking that’s the reason we’ve vaulted past him (penalty or not we would still be second after making up over two hours on the stages on him) and he puts in a formal protest even paying twenty grand in protest fees. We have a good laugh.
But we aren’t the only one’s protesting! At the front Maruti Suzuki Motorsport’s Suresh Rana and Ashwin Naik took their fifth Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm victory despite having to nurse his Vitara over the last days. Behind him Niju Padia drove commendably to take second in his Pajero Sport but the Isuzu guys protested that he was running a differential lock and Niju was demoted down the order.
As for the other front runners Gaurav Chiripal in his V6-engined Vitara ran Suresh very close on day one but blew his engine after hitting the sump on day two and retired. Sanjay Agarwal, also in a V6-engined Vitara led on day three after Suresh was given a 16-minute penalty for an uncharacteristic early check-in into a Time Control but blew his gearbox at the end of the day. Aman blew his engine on the long 198km stage and elected to go back home rather than continue with penalties. And Gypsy king Sandy blew his engine.
In the moto class our Dakar hero, Hero MotoSport’s C S Santosh, won the rally but the truck transporting his bike to the final time control (bikers need not ride their bikes on transport sections) broke down and by the time he got to the bike and rode it to the final Time Control he was late by half an hour and that dropped him to second. Santosh also had a horrid crash on day three where he overshot a corner and hit a barbed wire fence that wasn’t marked on the road book. The wire caught him in the helmet (his goggles were punctured!), he blacked out and had to be assisted by fellow riders. “What if the wire had caught me in the neck?” he asked me when I met him that night! And not only was he shaken up but for the rest of the rally he had a nerve tingle that meant he couldn’t even straighten his left hand. TVS Racing’s Nataraj won the moto class but it has to be said the TVS boys on their smaller machines rode superbly to stay within shouting distance of Santosh.
A really nice trophy
It has to be said that the Northern Motorsport guys and Maruti Suzuki Motorsport know how to put on a great show. It’s rare to find an organiser who is concerned about competitors. In fact most INRC organisers act as if they’re doing competitors a favour by organising events. On the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm though we were all looked after really well. Every night we slept in really good hotels, ate good meals, generally were very well taken care of. Two stages were delayed but that was because of local issues, otherwise everything ran to clockwork – no mean feat considering the stage distances and the remote areas we were rallying in. If there’s one irritant, it’s the enthusiasm with which fines are imposed in scrutiny every morning – I paid 500 bucks for a faulty parking light – but that’s hardly going to dissuade me from coming back next year.
Northern Motorsport are also genuinely interested in improving the standard of cross-country rallying so that we are better prepared if and when we graduate to international events. Long stages, night stages, GPS navigation, stages that in places do resemble the Dakar, even the friendly prods to come better prepared with a better looking car next year – it’s all so that the standard of rallying moves North. And the best part is at the end of it all they send you home with a really, really nice trophy, inspiring you to come back the next year, put in the miles and hopefully get closer to whatever rainbow you’re chasing. Even if it sounds as far fetched as the Dakar. L