Hero MotoSport rider CS Santosh is set for Dakar 2021, says "the new bike is just phenomenal"
As told to Sirish Chandran
Hero MotoSport will be the only Indian team at the 2021 Dakar and they have stepped up their commitment with a brand new bike. CS Santosh says the bike now has more power and better ergonomics to reduce fatigue on the long, difficult stages of the Dakar rally. In conversation with editor Sirish Chandran he talks about his preparation for the Dakar, “I haven’t been able to go to the gym and constantly work with my guys for the corrective procedure for my back.” On the new Hero Dakar bike he says, “The power and the stability was lacking all these years and now we finally have that.” He also points out that the new bike results in less fatigue, “At the end of the day, in Dakar, the lesser you fight with the motorcycle and the more you enjoy it, you perform better.”
On his Dakar targets CS Santosh says, “My target is to just enjoy the event. I’m not just saying this on the surface but in the past I’ve always put pressure on myself and when you do that and set a goal, you just forget that you’re riding to have fun. If I have a Kodak moment at every given time in the rally, it means that I’m doing well.”
We also talk about the XPulse and a talent development program in India to find the next CS Santosh, “The Xpulse was born from the race program that we have and I’m very confident that we will have many products in the future that will do very well in the market. In 2021, we will definitely have a national team, a dedicated staff that will work on the talent recruitment program to bring people into the national team and give them a chance. There will also be events for Xpulse customers to experience rallying.”
Here’s the full interview with editor Sirish Chandran.
evo India: 2020 has been a difficult year for everyone. How difficult has preparation for the Dakar been?
CS Santosh: We didn’t do much racing this year. That is one aspect of it. Another aspect is that we have a new motorcycle. It’s completely new and nothing is the same from last year. We haven’t tested the bike much but we did as much testing as we could in Europe. If we could spend some time in the desert with it, we could be really sure of it but we haven’t had the time to do so. The third thing is, I’ve had a couple of injuries over the years, especially my back. So I need some personal care in terms of what I do in the gym. That has really been the biggest problem this year. I haven’t been able to go to the gym and constantly work with my guys for the corrective procedure for my back. That has definitely been an area of concern but I think I can manage this Dakar and that will be the biggest challenge this year.”
evo India: What is new on this year’s bike?
CS Santosh: “Everything from the geometry, the tank and the engine itself. It’s all new. Even though it looks similar to the older bike in terms of design, it’s all new.
“I am really confident with the bike. From what we have tested, it feels really good. I was very happy with last year’s bike as well and in comparison, this year’s bike is just phenomenal. The power and the stability was lacking all these years and now we finally have that as well. It is powerful and it handles really well in choppy, rough terrains and on fast bits as well. At the end of the day, in Dakar, the lesser you fight with the motorcycle and the more you enjoy it, you perform better. So it is a step in the right direction.
“I do know that we can achieve top speeds like the KTM and that is upwards of 180kmph.”
evo India: You have benchmarked this bike against the Honda and KTM?
CS Santosh: “Of course not Honda because just like us, they make limited numbers of motorcycles. We do have a little experience with the KTM bikes and they can be taken as a benchmark because they have been winning for the longest number of years. In that context, without any obligations, if I was given a choice to choose between the two, I would choose the bike that we have for the year.”
evo India: In terms of your riding style, have you given any inputs during the development of the bike so that it becomes easier for you to handle it?
CS Santosh: “In a race like the Dakar, one thing is the rider's fatigue. It is caused when there is a lot of movement on the motorcycle, it is caused when you do not have enough power at your disposal and you need to ride the motorcycle really hard. Also in terms of ergonomics, the rider holding onto the bike, the design of the tank plays a very important role. You can strap yourself in a car but on a motorcycle, if the tank is designed right, it sort of holds you in place and issues like that have been addressed and the new motorcycle is better in those aspects too. So in this Dakar, I expect the fatigue to be a lot lesser.”
evo India: What was the biggest problem in the earlier bikes?
CS Santosh: “With the earlier bikes, it was not just the top speed. In terms of getting out of the corners, the torque delivery and being able to get power throughout the range, it is much better on the current bike. Like I said earlier about fatigue, we need to be able to handle that power. We haven’t had the chance to do any fast stages in the bike yet so we need to find out if I need to hang on to the bike a lot more now with the increased power output.”
evo India: Where are you vis-a-vis your teammates? In terms of pace.
CS Santosh: “Of course I cannot match them but I have improved over the years. Even this year, I am much faster than I was last year. So that is a good indicator for me.”
evo India: What is your target for the 2021 Dakar?
CS Santosh: “My target is to just enjoy the event. I’m not just saying this on the surface but in the past I’ve always put pressure on myself and when you do that and set a goal, you just forget that you’re riding to have fun. Over the years, all the stages where I’ve just gone out and had fun, I used to do and feel really good. And if you’d click a photo of me, I’d look damn good on the bike too. So if I have a Kodak moment at every given time in the Rally, it means that I’m doing well. Enjoying the motorcycle, being in the right position at the right time is what is really important in a race like Dakar because it is that hard. This race exposes your weaknesses, you need to confront those weaknesses every day, there are days where you do not do as well as you’d expected and that just brings you down. And you don’t want to feel down. You just need to have fun and enjoy.”
evo India: How is the route for this year’s Dakar? Is it all going to be dunes or does it have a mix of terrain?
CS Santosh: “They said that there’s going to be a fair amount of dunes but we really are skeptical about it. We are not entirely sure. Even last year they said there were going to be dunes but just after a few kilometres on the dunes, we would come back out onto the valley. So for this year, they said that there will be some technical dunes and dunettes. Since we’re going close to Jordan, I think it is going to be a lot of tracks with rocks and navigation.”
evo India: How would you compare Saudi with South America?
CS Santosh: “Personally, the South American Rally was really difficult for me. Because it was three countries, different climatic conditions, different altitudes and so on. So you arrive in Argentina, scorching heat. In Bolivia, it was raining at two or three degrees and putting your body through that is a lot! Chile has the harshest weather in the world and so in terms of physical challenge, the Rally of South America is really difficult. When it comes to Dakar, Saudi Arabia was surprisingly one of the easier rallies. The temperatures in Saudi Arabia are lower and you just have one geography. So I think it wasn’t as challenging as South America but I guess that organisers can make it challenging if they want to because they have the playground to do it.”
evo India: Some riders say that the ones who have the balls to keep the throttle open and go flatout most of the time have an advantage in this sort of terrain. Do you agree?
CS Santosh: “I mean, I would say that any rally rider with big balls would have an advantage. In most rallies like these, you’re pretty much guessing most of the time. It is mostly guesswork and it isn’t about cornering speeds and all. It’s more about whether or not you can hold on and keep the throttle wide open for most of the time. Saudi Arabia was not very technical so the riders didn’t really get to shine so much. But ideally, in most rallies, that is the case.”
evo India: You always had a slight problem with navigation. Is that sorted now?
CS Santosh: “I’m much better now than I was in the past. I used to make mistakes while navigating but I'm definitely better now. I think the year I spent a lot of time with Paulo testing in Morocco, I grew in leaps and bounds.”
evo India: What’s the atmosphere like in the Hero MotoSports team? What is the support like from Hero MotoCorp?
CS Santosh: “I have to say that it is very encouraging. Even though the team is run by Waffi (Wolfgang Fischer, head, Hero MotoSports Team Rally), who isn’t Indian, the Indian management is very proactive and enthusiastic about what we are doing. There is always a connection with the product and that is ultimately very encouraging for me. For example, with the Xpulse, it was born from the race program that we have and I’m very confident that we will have many products in the future that will do very well in the market and that in turn will be good for the rally team as well because we will have better budget, we can take part in more events and probably, that will even lead to a better racing infrastructure in the country too. So I’m very happy with Hero.”
evo India: You’ve also been working with Hero to develop riders here in India with an aim to see them participate in the Dakar. Any progress on that? Or has this year been more or less a washout on that front?
CS Santosh: “We actually had plans of establishing a national team this year but due to the pandemic, we couldn’t make that happen. So in 2021, we will definitely have a national team, a dedicated staff that will work on the talent recruitment program to bring people into the national team and give them a chance. There will also be events for Xpulse customers to experience rallying. So it isn’t entirely about motorsports. In order to grow the motorsports sector, we need to first get the idea out there in regular road-going bikes like the Xpulse. So this helps with a rider picturing himself in one of the races. He should be able to see that idea. Since motorsports has only a small group in India, if we only focus on that small group, it will never really grow. So we have to reach out to the masses. That really is key in India.”
evo India: You were closely involved in the development of the Rally kit for the Xpulse. What are your thoughts on that?
CS Santosh: “The Xpulse Rally kit, I think, is an affordable package. Considering that you can buy the Xpulse in its current shape or form from the dealership and straight away go offroad and have fun with it, with the rally kit, we’re just saying that we’re here to support the aspirations of a rider and they don’t really have to know about the mechanical aspects. So with the rally kit, we want to give riders the required guidance. So it is a very holistic approach that we’re trying to put together at Hero. I’m excited because this is just the beginning. There are better products coming out in the future and they have better performance as well.”
evo India: Finally, you said earlier that your target is to have fun out there in the 2021 Dakar. But what are the team’s targets?
CS Santosh: “The team would first like to get all of us across the finish line. It will be really hard for a few members in the team as they were very close to Paulo apart from being close professionally as well. So it will be very difficult for them as they have to face their demons. Then, we have a new bike now and that makes it all the more important to focus on that team finish.”
Keep watching this space for all the updates on the grueling Dakar rally, starting next Sunday.