Inside RFC India 2017 – Virdi and Tung rise to the top in the toughest off-road event in the country

Inside RFC India 2017 – Virdi and Tung rise to the top in the toughest off-road event in the country

Not too many people know this, but Goa in the monsoons is a spectacular place. Most tourists avoid it — the beaches are a mess, the shacks are shut and the torrential downpour doesn’t let you experience Goa at its stereotypical best. But to hell with stereotypes. While the beach is out of commission, the hinterland comes alive. The fields are lush, the countryside is speckled with every hue of green you can imagine, and the forests are throbbing with life, their canopies being buffeted by the incessant rain. At this time of the year the rivers are full, the trails are slushy and full of… off-roaders. They just can’t seem to resist it.

“The competitors are fitter, their vehicles are better and they are more mentally prepared”

The Rainforest Challenge India – Four gruesome seasons

For four consecutive years now, these jungles of Goa have hosted the Rainforest Challenge — India’s hardest off-roading event, possibly India’s hardest motorsport event, right up there with the rally-raids. And year after year, the event gets more participants — proper nutters who dare to take on the combined might of Cougar Motorsport and the wild outdoors. Talk to these guys, and they’ll admit that with each passing year, the stages are getting harder and harder — this year was the hardest. But they’ll also proudly state that they are getting better at facing these challenges — they are fitter, their vehicles are better and most importantly, they are more mentally prepared.

In the past three seasons, the first two days have been relatively easy ones — they consist of two spectator stages right outside the city of Panjim, in Dona Paula. However, the organisers mixed things up. Instead of the spectator stages being held at the start of the event, they decided to throw the competition in to the depths of the jungle first, and allow the survivors to battle it out in front of spectators on the last two days. Here’s how things went down — competitors would have to attempt each stage and a maximum of 100 points were awarded to the fastest, 95 points to the second fastest, 90 points to the third fastest… you get the drift. Points could be deducted for a number of reasons including touching a live winching cable or tearing the bunting. Competitors had to be fast through the stage, yet precise — the drivers are important yes, but the co-drivers have a more important role. They need to communicate clearly, and ensure their drivers are on the right line. They also have to do all the running around outside — setting up the winches, placing the sand ladders, and getting all their equipment back in the car before they hit the finish line. Each competitor is given a maximum of 15 minutes to finish a stage, failing which they will be marked with a DNF.

The stages – Its not all mud and games

Day 1 had five stages, with a total of 500 points up for grabs. The competitors are accustomed to the first few stages of the RFC, called the Prologue stages, being relatively easy — a warm up of sorts for what is to follow. No such luck this year. Right off the bat, they were faced with some of the hardest stages they had ever seen. Not a single competitor could finish stage 2. Not only were they getting stuck, but even the recovery vehicles were finding it hard to get in and out of the stage. The other stages over the day were tough as well, but the top teams managed to make it past all of them. Last year’s winners, the team of Gurmeet Virdi and Kirpal Singh Tung, began their title defence on a strong note — topping the charts on the first day by racking up 390 points. They were back in the same Gypsy they used the previous year but with minor alterations to the winches. Not too far behind was another strong challenger to the title — veteran rallyist Jagat Nanjappa and his co-driver Chetan Changappa with 355 points. He was using the same Jeep he competed in last year as well. In third place were Siddartha Santhosh and Prithviraj AC. This was the first time in the history of RFC’s India chapter that an international driver was not a part of the top five positions on day Day 1. The team of Merwyn Lim and Tan Choon Hong were one of the international teams here this year but a crucial part of their vehicle hadn’t  arrived yet when the event started. Their low-gear crown pinion only arrived in time for Day 2, but they were already a fair bit behind, scoring just 195 points on Day 1.

“The weaker teams were getting separated from the real contenders. A number of teams had already called it quits”

However, the leaderboard changed a fair bit on Day 2. Both Virdi and Nanjappa slipped down one position each while third-placed Santhosh leapfrogged in to the lead. Virdi had an incident on stage 8, where his car flipped on to its side. The incident injured Virdi’s right elbow and shoulder, leaving him with a deep gash and other minor injuries. Nevertheless, they forged ahead, putting his Gypsy upright and finishing the stage, and continuing through the day. Speaking to him after the event, he told me that the injury did affect his performance — steering the car did cause discomfort, but he endured it nevertheless. Meanwhile, the team of Merwyn and Tan were making a resurgence. They fared poorly in SS6 and SS7, but scored a full 100 points in SS8 and 95 points in SS9. However, Cedric Jordan DaSilva was making real progress, jumping to fourth place from ninth after day 2. Each stage through the day was designed to test a different attribute of the vehicle and its team. Some of the stages had steep descents with 45-degree inclines. SS8 involved having to navigate through a 150m long stream, with penalties awarded if all four wheels were not in the stream while SS9 was a night stage that brought on a whole new set of challenges.

On Day 3, Virdi reclaimed the lead after completing SS15. Santhosh toppled his vehicle sideways in SS10, and lost out on crucial points that cost him the lead. Nanjappa stayed a steady third place on day 3. The competition was really tight — even after a total of 15 stages with a total of 1500 points up for grabs, the top three teams all sat within 50 points of each other. The day’s stages involved a lot of winching, including getting past 90-degree climbs and water crossings and slowly but surely, the weaker teams were getting separated from the real contenders. A number of teams had already called it quits. A real disappointment was the retiring of Kabir Waraich and his co-driver Gagan Sachdeva. Kabir was the top Indian driver in 2014 and 2015’s RFC India and has even participated in the Malaysian edition of the RFC of 2014. Expectations of him were high, however he broke the axles on his vehicle a couple of times and ran out of spares, forcing him to retire from the competition.

The stages were harder, but the competition was up for it

Things at the top of the table got even closer at the end of Day 4, which saw the running of SS16 to SS18. Virdi retained the top spot, but Santhosh was just one point behind him in the overall standings while Nanjappa still retained the third position. Virdi’s car gave him trouble throughout the day, and this allowed the competition to run him so close. While Jordan retained his fourth position, Merwyn had been steadily gaining places over the course of the competition to fifth place. You see, not only do the drivers have strengths and weaknesses, but so do the vehicles. For example, the Gypsy builds with their petrol engines are generally lighter and are easier to manoeuvre around the faster stages. Meanwhile, the Jeep and Thar builds are heavier — tougher and better on the steeper, more technical inclines. Nanjappa’s Jeep was a heavy build, making it hard for him to keep up with the leaders and had been a stagnant third in the competition so far.

Day 5 had a total of five stages —and with 500 points up for grabs, would possibly decide the winner. Virdi managed to get some breathing space and retained his position, putting some points between himself and the second placed Nanjappa. Santhosh, dropped down the order to third after a DNF in one stage and breaking an axle in another. Car trouble for Jordan saw him drop down the order as well. It just goes to show that you need a lot of things going your way if you want to win. Both teams were underdogs and were going strong all through the competition, but one slip up possibly cost them their campaigns. Meanwhile, Sanbir Singh Dhaliwal and his co-driver Gurpartap Singh, who were nowhere in the top five throughout the competition this year put in some solid performances that day and slotted themselves in fourth.

“Nanjappa’s Jeep was a heavy build, making it hard for him to keep up with the leaders and had been a stagnant third”

With just two stages (and 200 points) left, Virdi was a mere 64 points ahead of Nanjappa; the title was still anyone’s for the taking.

The prize

The final two stages drew in a huge number of spectators, who witnessed the end of this week long off-roading extravaganza. Virdi successfully defended his title with Nanjappa placing second but the real surprise was that Santhosh slipped back and allowed Dhaliwal to claim third place. Santhosh had consistently remained at the top throughout the competition but poor performances on the last two days cost him a podium. However, it was not all doom and gloom for him. The winners of RFC were to win a subsidised entry in to RFC Malaysia, along with the cost of the tickets to Malaysia and a $3000 sponsorship for hiring a vehicle. Virdi and Tung did win these prizes, but after the competition was over, Cougar Motorsport announced that they would be extending these benefits to the top four teams this year. So now Nanjappa, Sanbir, Santhosh and their co-drivers will be getting subsidised entries and sponsored flight tickets. Only the vehicle hiring sponsorship remains with the winners. Virdi participated in the Malaysian RFC in 2016, but found it to be very taxing mentally since there was no one else who spoke their language, or could provide any sort of support. Four teams heading out there this year should boost their morales and come back more successful.

The fourth season of RFC saw an exponential increase in the quality of builds, as well as performances from the participants. The organisers did their best to keep the challenges tough, in a bid to live up to their ‘Not for the faint hearted’ tag line. The participants rose up to the occasion, giving it their best and now four teams will represent India.

Words by Aatish Mishra

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