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C S Santosh: “I had no energy. I completely expended myself. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.”
Aravind K P: “I crashed many times and I got tired doing it, the same thing over and over again.”
It’s only the fourth day of the 2017 Dakar, the hardest, most difficult of all the Dakar’s held in South America. One is in the medical centre having been evacuated by the medical chopper the other is exhausted beyond words and just “happy to be back.” Talk about a trial by fire for two Indian riders, two Indian manufacturers and, even two Indian journos assigned to cover the most incredible motorsport event in the world.
It’s a long way away!
36 hours. That’s how long it took me to get to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, start of the 2017 edition of the Dakar. As the clock struck 12 in India to mark the start of the New Year, I was somewhere over the Atlantic thankful that airplanes today have onboard Wi-Fi to work WhatsApp. Nine hours later, I check into our hotel as fireworks go off over the river in Asuncion to mark the New Year in South America, my bags with all my gear for a week on the Dakar, untraceable (thank you, Emirates). Somebody whispers in my ear, “This is the Dakar.” Yeah, right.
Who is the fastest Indian?
That’s what we are here to find out. C S Santosh, whatever he does, will always be a hero in my books. Nobody thought it was possible, yet he pulled it off. Wearing a Red Bull hat at a jaunty angle, and with cash from friends and family, he got astride a semi-works KTM and finished the Dakar on his debut in 2015.
The very same year, India’s oldest and most successful racing team, TVS Racing, dipped their toes in the Dakar with the French outfit Sherco Motorcycles. Far from a sticker job, TVS used the programme to blood and train their race engineers, Indian hands spannering the Sherco rally bikes, and now that programme has logically expanded to get an Indian in the saddle.
Aravind K P has a lot to be grateful for. Grateful to Santosh for opening the doors and showing the world (and more importantly, people back home!) that an Indian can cut it in the Dakar. Thankful to TVS Racing for putting their faith (and money!) in him and giving him the opportunity of a lifetime. I don’t need a tele lens to make out all 32 of his teeth, glinting in the sunlight as he takes the start of the most important race of his life. Half an hour later (for the ceremonial start runs in reverse starting order) C S Santosh rides up on his white motorcycle and hugs a man in a white t-shirt who I recognise through the tele lens. Year one – KTM; year two – Suzuki; year three – India’s and the world’s, largest two-wheeler manufacturer. Hero MotorCorp’s new found enthusiasm for motorsport is driven by the man in the white t-shirt on the podium, chief technology officer Markus Braunsperger, a hardcore biker if there ever was one. The newly formed Hero MotoSports team has roped in the German Speedbrain outfit (with a back catalogue of clients including BMW, Husqvarna and Honda) to run their Dakar squad. Santosh sports number 42. Aravind is number 77. Hero v TVS. Speedbrain v Sherco. Germany v France – in the service of India’s fastest riders.
Of course we are also here to see Mr WRC Sebastien Loeb take on Mr Dakar Stephane Peterhansel, El Matador Carlos Sainz take on the Desert Sheikh Nasser Al Attiyah. We are also here to see the 950bhp trucks race each other and, of course, Honda go all out to brake KTM’s dominance of the Dakar. Like hell I am going to hang around in Paraguay for my bags to arrive. We can buy a sleeping bag in Argentina.
Bus, car, plane from bivouac to bivouac
We’ve signed up for something called the Press Plane pack and I have an added photographer accreditation that is supposed to get me additional access, though I am yet to find out what that is. The accreditation costs such an eye-watering sum of money that I fear you might get a mild stroke if I tell you the exact amount. Let’s just say we could do an around the world trip on what we paid the organisers, the ASO. In business class.
But what an operation the ASO runs! At Asuncion we find our way to the press centre located in the football stadium and get all our accreditation formalities done. South American visas take the longest time for us Indians and by the time we were done with Paraguay and Bolivia we didn’t have enough time for Argentina. Fortunately, the press officer Justine takes us to meet the head of the Argentinian embassy who grants us visas. What luck!
The accreditation centre is a vast hall, one of those massive conference rooms in a hotel, with something like 20 bays for different paperwork – medical, documentation, road books, photo accreditation and numerous other things for the crews and drivers. And at the end of it you clear immigration – Paraguay exit and Argentina entry, all stamped on your passport and a little red book that you hand over to the organisers who then confirm your place in the Press Plane pack. Which, turns out, is a misnomer as we’re asked to be ready at 3:30am, yes AM, for a double-decker bus that will take us to the bivouac in Resistencia, Argentina.
A short-lived debut
One kilometre from the end of the very first stage, the short 29km prologue in Paraguay.Aravind has already made up 17 places when he lines up to overtake a slower rider but he gets cut out, has to grab the brakes and the front washes out in the slush. Aravind is down, dazed, his brand new helmet doing its job but leaving him with a bruise above his left eye. He eventually finishes the stage in 63rd place after making 14 places and heads to the medical centre where an X-ray confirms two broken bones in his left palm (the soft bones between the middle two knuckles and the wrist) and an aggravation to an old wrist injury.
“I’ve come too far to call it quits now”, says Aravind as he gets down to working on his road book for the next day while Prakasham, Aravind’s mechanic from TVS Racing, gets down to work on the Sherco TVS RTR 450 that has suffered rather extensive damage. The helmet has to be thrown away too.
David Casteu, Sherco TVS’s team manager and a veteran of 13 Dakars with a best of third in 2008 to his name, is worried. He knows it will need superhuman effort for Aravind to get to the end of the Dakar in Buenos Aires in two weeks time, but the Indian rider does redeem himself the next day when he finds his teammate Adrian Metge stranded in the stage with a blown engine and tows him 70km through the stage and a further 100km in the transport stage back to the bivouac. Aravind is in obvious agony when I see him in the bivouac but the medical team says he is okay to continue.
Day four. In the media centre Aravind’s name does not flash up on the first check point. Calls are made. David confirms Aravind has crashed and is out. How bad we ask? Nobody knows. In the evening word comes that he’s in the medical centre with a shoulder injury and will join us the next day as the weather is too rough for the medical chopper to bring him to the bivouac.
Next day Aravind meets us in Bolivia and describes his crash.
“The stage was really, really rough. Full of off-piste (no marked tracks) sections and full of sand. I reached the 40km mark and it got tougher and tougher. I got into the trail section and I couldn’t grip the handle bars and I went down, hit myself on the rock and hyper extended my shoulder.
“The whole body was compensating for my wrist. And since I couldn’t go fast I would crash on the corners because there were deep ruts in the sand.
“I was very tired, I had crashed many times before that since I couldn’t maintain my speed in the sand. And you really can’t stay up if you don’t have the correct speed on the sandy sections. And I got tired doing it, the same thing over and over again. At the start of the stage the bike is around 140kg with a full load of fuel and every time I go down and I lift the bike there is so much more energy I am losing which you can use for the next 30-40km.”
The last crash was it for Aravind. Dehydrated and exhausted he hit the button on his bike for the medical evacuation chopper and that was that for his Dakar debut. His road to redemption, the training, the incredible work that will be required if Aravind is to come back to the Dakar in 2018 begins right now.
Not a sticker job
The TVS partnership with Sherco began in 2014 when the boss of TVS Racing Arvind Pangaonkar met with Sherco’s boss Marc Tessier on a visit to Europe and they hit it off famously. One thing led to another and TVS Racing’s flags appeared in the Sherco pits on the 2015 Dakar, bringing three Indian mechanics to spanner the Sherco 450 rally bikes. This year TVS Racing’s Prakasham has graduated to the lead mechanic for Aravind K P’s bike, David Casteu the Sherco team manager being very impressed with not just his technical skill but his unflinching dedication and never-say-never attitude.
TVS Motor Company engineers have also been visiting Sherco’s factory in Nimes with the knowledge transfer being two-way. Sherco has experience with enduro and rally-raid bikes while TVS has vast engineering resources, sophisticated CAD/CAM tools and advanced manufacturing and prototyping capabilities. One can safely assume that TVS is giving as much as they’re taking from this partnership (Sherco ran a new prototype engine for Pedrero with a crucial 8 additional horsepower) and it’ll only be a matter of time before a variation of the Sherco RTR 450 will be seen in Indian rallies and supercross events.
Lean and mean
The Dakar is an incredible adventure – two weeks across South America, an average of 700-900km every day, terrain that’s back and bike breaking and to handle all of this the Sherco TVS team have… nine people. And the nine people include the three riders! Think about that for a minute. Six guys to take care of three motorcycles on the Dakar, one of which (Pedrero with the prototype engine) won the opening stage of the 2017 edition.
The Sherco setup consists of three blue Mercedes vans, one of which has been outfitted with three beds and an air-conditioner so the riders can get a good night’s rest. The rest of the crew sleeps in tents, one of which your reporter has borrowed because Emirates lost his aforementioned bags on the way to Paraguay.
Over at Hero MotoSport’s setup there’s a proper Dakar-spec Mercedes 6×6 Actros truck that looks purposeful and super-organised as befitting a German team that once ran BMW’s Dakar bikes. The truck also has an attached shower which gives Santosh (and the rest of the ten man Speedbrain crew) a modicum of privacy unlike the communal bathrooms in the bivouac that everybody (including your correspondent) uses.
“It was madness”
C S Santosh has a similarly nightmarish day four, telling me, “I’m just happy to be back”. He looks finished, physically and mentally drained. “We worked so hard to move up (yesterday). Now it’s all gone. It’s so easy to lose heart.”
He had so many crashes he couldn’t keep track. “I was lucky. You know when you are lucky, when you are getting away with stuff. I had lots of crashes, some crashes that would have been pretty big but somehow managed to save it.”
And he lost his way. “I couldn’t even navigate. It was so hard. The thing about navigation is you need to be able to process the information but today the stage was so hard all my processing power was used in just trying to ride the motorcycle.”
Santosh also missed two way points and in the night, word would come in of a 90-minute penalty dropping him down to 87th place. That’s way below his capability, his skill level. He tells me that had he stuck with the top 40 for the first section of the Dakar then finishing in the top twenty by Buenos Aires would have been entirely possible. But now that’s an uphill task.
“Today was madness. And tomorrow it all starts again.”
And it gets worse
“Wow man”, says Santosh as I sit down with him for a long chat on the rest day in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. It has been the hardest Dakar in all the years that the event has run in South America but Santosh has made it to the half way point.
To bring you up to speed from Jujuy, the Dakar moved up the Andes into Bolivia, swapping the heat for single-digit temperatures, the humidity for apocalyptic rain, and all-round light-headedness courtesy the altitude. Starting way, way down made things even harder for Santosh. “There was so much talk of the dunes and those dunes were the hardest ever. It’s incredible! The bike was struggling (due to the altitude) and so was the human being. I took a couple of minutes every now and then just to catch my breath because I dropped the bike a couple of times.”
But worse was to come on day six when the heavens opened up and the stage had to be cut short at the 165km mark. “Wow. That day the liaison coming into Oruru (in Bolivia) was killer. People don’t understand the stages are really hard in the Dakar but then you get to the liaison and it’s not any easier. Even though you are on the road, the weather conditions are adverse and since we race stages we can’t actually wear stuff that can help us when it is wet and cold. You have to tough it out and it was really cold that day and it was raining. And every time you see clouds here and there and you’re praying please, I just hope the road doesn’t wind through them. That’s all you are praying for 300km.”
A president named Evo
The Bolivian president is a huge, huge Dakar fan – no wonder, considering his first name is Evo! And he isn’t alone. Leaving the bivouac in Argentina at an unearthly hour we were stunned to find crowds lining the road, even packing makeshift grand stands – at 4 in the morning! At petrol pumps we were swamped for selfies, just because our Fortuner had Dakar stickers on it. Getting to La Paz, crowds lined the streets for 30km getting into and through the city to the mid-way podium where Evo Morales, the president, obliged every single participant for a selfie. In the little village of Potosi in Bolivia where stage five ended there was a festive atmosphere akin to Durga Puja in Kolkata, a military band playing, and everybody was waving Bolivian flags. If only we Indians had one tenth the enthusiasm of the South Americans.
As for the front runners
Forgotten have we about Loeb? About the mad Peugeots and even madder Kamaz trucks? Well first to go out was the Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah, who sheared off his left rear wheel and everything that was attached to it making it impossible for his Toyota Gazoo Racing team to put his Hilux back together again. Then Carlos Sainz barrel-rolled his Peugeot and though he did limp it back to the bivouac (these things are made like tanks!) his team said it was impossible to repair in time. And so it was left to Peterhansel and Loeb to dice with each other while Despres made it an all Peugeot podium at the mid-way mark ahead of Nani Roma in the first of the Toyota Hilux’s ahead of another WRC-refugee Mikko Hirvonen being the fastest of the (not-so-mini) Mini. The X-Raid team were running ten Minis, massive beasts that can only be called Mini out of irony, but they were hopelessly outclassed by the factory Peugeots and Toyotas.
The trucks, the beasts, had defending champion Gerad De Rooy’s IVECO ahead of a platoon of Russians in their Kamaz.
On the bike front, Honda looked comfortable in the lead when they made a monumental blunder, refuelling all the HRC bikes in a prohibited area and getting slapped with a one hour penalty. Toby Price, last year’s winner (and Santosh’s 2015 teammate) crashed from the lead and shattered his thigh bone and that left another KTM rider Sam Sunderland in the lead at La Paz.
Between Sherco TVS and Hero Speedbrain, the former tasted first blood with Pedrero winning the very first stage but the Spanish rider dropped down the order when his engine blew on day five and got slapped with a penalty.Meanwhile in the white corner, Joaquim Rodrigues, making his Dakar debut, knocked on the top ten, rolling into La Paz, 11th in the general classification. For a bike based on the 2013 Husqvarna that Speedbrain used to run, Hero’s results were nothing short of spectacular.
This is the Dakar
Anything that goes wrong, any hardship anybody faces, that’s the standard retort. “This is the Dakar.”
By the sixth day we’ve had it. I’ve already run through the Emirates toiletry kit and four shirts and one pant I’ve bought in Argentina, looking like a homeless tramp with only a knapsack while the rest of the press corp lugged around heavy bags and tents from bus to media tent every day. I know this will sound stupid, but just following the Dakar puts a toll on you. For three days in a row we were bussed, overnight, from bivouac to bivouac and that turned out to be a blessing – an air-conditioned bus is a far nicer place to sleep in than a sweltering (or freezing) tent. I’m not ashamed to say on day three, in Tucuman, we found a Sheraton where we got a full night’s sleep while our other colleagues discovered there aren’t too many joys to camping.
Things really peaked at the bivouac in Oruru where we reached at 9am after a ten hour bus ride. Out of breath (the camp is higher than Kaza on the Raid!) we had a communal shower in near-freezing conditions and then saw the skies turn an ugly grey before it turned the entire camp into one huge slush pit. At 9pm we lugged our luggage through knee deep slush and piled into the busses where we were told we aren’t going anywhere and were handed food rations to last through the night. Luckily somebody realised the longer we waited, the less likely the bus would make it out of the slushy bivouac and we were eventually bussed to La Paz where we hailed the first taxi we could find, found a hotel, and slept for 15 hours straight. This, really, is the Dakar.
The second half of the Dakar had a truncated two days in Bolivia due to the rains and then stage 9 in Argentina was cancelled due to landslides. Up front Mr Dakar, Stephane Peterhansel triumphed over Mr WRC Sebastien Loeb, the latter ruing the omission of WRC-like stages in the second half. Cyril Despres made it a Peugeot 1-2-3 with Nani Roma in the Toyota Hilux the best of the rest in fourth. In the trucks Eduard Nikolaev won for the second time in the Russian Kamaz with teammate Dmitry Sotnikov taking second ahead of 2016 winner Gerard de Rooy in the IVECO. And in the bikes Sam Sunderland, riding a KTM, took the first Dakar win for a Brit heading a KTM podium lock out ahead of Matthias Walkner and Gerard Farres.
As for our Indian team Hero MotoSports had a fantastic debut year bringing both bikes home to the finish with rookie Rodrigues finishing a phenomenal 10th while C S Santosh took his second Dakar finish, riding up the ramp in Buenos Aires in 47th position. Team Sherco TVS also had a great finish with Pedrero finishing 13th in the overall standings with Metge 22nd.