Gaurav Gill’s accident is an awful reminder that motorsport is dangerous
It has been a desperately trying time for the rallying community that I, very proudly, count myself to be a part of.
Last Saturday, a terrible accident on the Maxperience Rally in Jodhpur saw Gaurav Gill’s car collide with a motorcycle on the live stage, killing all three members of the family on the bike. I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family of the deceased and pray that god gives them the strength to pull through the worst possible time of their lives.
That something like has happened on a rally stage has shaken me to the core. I haven’t been able to post or say anything about it… I don’t know, in the misplaced hope that this will all just blow away… but as journalist, who is also a rallyist, I must say something.
Gaurav and co-driver Musa Sherif have been booked and an FIR registered under Section 304 of the IPC for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. But news reports simply cannot use phrases like ‘Speeding car of ace rallyist…’ to describe the incident. They’re pointing the finger of guilt at a person who is not guilty. That’s as plainly as I can put it.
What is a rally?
It is a motor sport event designed for participants to drive fast, racing against the clock, over sections of road that have been closed to traffic. It’s vital to highlight that last point. Rally drivers do not expect any traffic, no animals, no nothing on the stage that they’re racing down. A live stage is a sanitised stage. Three safety cars with bloody loud sirens first go through the stage warning everybody and ensuring all safety norms are in place. Spectator points, or areas where you might have villagers, are cordoned off and have crowd control marshals. These things are not compromised on, and while the Maxperience guys were organising an INRC for the first time they were being assisted by the Coimbatore Auto Sports Club who are one of the founding clubs of the FMSCI and have both vast experience and credibility.
The FMSCI, the body that governs motorsport in India, has done tremendous work in improving and upgrading safety standards. I know this to be a fact, and have been on the receiving end of how inflexible FMSCI officials are on safety. Every stage has an ambulance, doctors, trauma care facilities, and the FMSCI have invested in fast response vehicles that can get to accidents rapidly even before an ambulance. There are no compromises whatsoever on safety. But you cannot physically police, or fence off, every single metre of every single stage. Nowhere in the world can it be done. That villagers did not know that a rally is running is impossible to believe. The Indian National Rally Championship is a massive organisational effort and these events are not, and do not run, under the radar.
Gaurav Gill was doing his job
He is a professional rally driver, in the same way Lewis Hamilton is a professional race car driver, and his job is to drive a rally car faster than everybody else. He layered his god-given talent for car control with countless hours of testing and practise, years of sweat and blood invested in the sport, supreme physical fitness, the sacrifices the best make to become the best, and his fair share of accidents and injuries, to emerge at the very top of his game — both in India as well as the wider Asia Pacific region. Gaurav Gill is no ordinary driver. He’s quite possibly the best, the most skillful driver in India. Saying he is ‘speeding’ is equating his art and craft with the moron on the road who rides recklessly without a helmet putting him and other road users at risk.
There is a larger point to make here, which is that speeding is not the reason for India’s downright criminal road fatality record. It is the miserable infrastructure, pathetic lack of discipline, and shocking disregard for road safety — not speed. The vast majority of our cars and trucks are simply incapable of sustaining triple digit speeds. And worst of all is the astonishing enthusiasm for flouting of rules. The villagers, riding triple seat on the motorcycle, without helmets, were instructed and prevented from entering the stage, yet they still chose to enter the stage.
The Flying Finish
The accident happened at the FF (Flying Finish), which is the end of the stage where competitors cross the timing beam at full clip. When a rally driver is almost at the end of the stage, when his co-driver calls the FF coming up, he is at the very limit of his wheelsmanship and the car’s stability/ability. His eyes are peeled for that yellow board in the distance that signals the FF, accelerator pinned to the floor. He only backs off after crossing the flag.
Reports say Gaurav Gill was doing 140-150kmph and I do not doubt it. At that speed, on tarmac, the braking distance is 150 metres, assuming you have near-instantaneous reaction times. On dirt/gravel it is easily twice that. When something comes at you at that speed there is no avoidance manoeuvre you can make, nowhere you can swerve, you can only slam the brakes and pray.
In their defence, the villagers would never have imagined a car could travel so fast on their dirt tracks. They probably thought they had the time to cross. But that doesn’t make Gaurav Gill guilty. If anybody could have avoided the accident it is somebody with the skill of Gaurav Gill. In a rally you’re at a heightened state of alertness, your reactions are the quickest they will ever be. That Gaurav couldn’t avoid the bike means he had nowhere to go.
News reports are now saying the FIR mentions the villagers were parked off the track and Gaurav went into them. Impossible to believe that. The gory pictures published, without any empathy, by some websites show the three deceased on the rally track with their mangled motorcycle. Gaurav Gill’s car, with the smashed front end, is also on the track. Which clearly points to the incident having happened on the track, not off the track.
Another accident on the same stage
The two cars behind Gill are going to be questioned because a complaint alleges the cars behind were also involved in the accident. Again, that’s just not true. The truth is there was another accident on that very same stage, competitor #5, whose incident was due to a missed pace note. It was a big accident where the co-driver got injured and had to be rushed to hospital. The co-driver is recuperating well now. Again, to reiterate, that accident had nothing to do with the one at the finish.
Could this have been handled better?
The organisers packed up and fled the scene. They should not have done that. Period. But I cannot blame them either. This is India and they would, in all likelihood, have had the living daylights thrashed out of them. Can you grudge them running for their lives?
What isn’t right is that the organisers didn’t turn up even a day later. Gaurav Gill had only his team and his sponsors to rely on as they bounced from hotel to hotel to keep a low profile while the cops looked for somebody, anybody, to pin the blame on to. The FMSCI should have also held a press meet to put forward the correct facts, especially to the main stream media. It’s time the FMSCI had a press officer and a media commission. There’s a reason why it is called Public Relations.
I cannot even begin to imagine what Gaurav Gill, Musa Sherif and their families must be going through right now. Barely a month after becoming the first person from the motorsport community to win the prestigious Arjuna Award, Gill’s face is now on the front page of newspapers. For the worst possible reason. He has just signed on a new sponsor and has a promising career on the World Rally Stage ahead of him. And now this. This is enough to shatter, nay, destroy the confidence.
I don’t think I’ll be able to be on the limit on a rally stage anytime soon. Neither will most of my fellow competitors. This affects all of us. And it affects our sport in the worst possible way. At a time when things are picking up beautifully, when the government has recognised motorsport as a sport, we have this disaster.
There’s a lump in my throat and my heart is filled with terrible sadness for what Gill is going through. Rallying is his life and over the past week the sport has let him down; left him to fend for himself, for no fault of his own. And what absolutely terrifies me is the very real possibility that this could have happened to any of us. To me. To my colleagues and closest friends who are rally drivers.
In these trying times, not just us motorsport enthusiasts, but the larger community of driving and riding enthusiasts need to come together to support one of our own. The main stream media needs clarity, and needs to be supplied with proper facts. Gaurav Gill’s career, and his state of mind, cannot be destroyed because of this. We cannot afford for manufacturers, sponsor and participants to flee the sport. We need to stand strong. #IamWithGauravGill. Hope you are too.