The 2020 INRC kicks off with a double-header in the North East. But have the promoters adequately considered the health and safety of competitors and support crews?
“Running three national championship rallies in one month is down right ridiculous.” This is the first reaction of Vicky Chandhok, past president and current councillor of the FMSCI, to the 2020 INRC calendar that has just been released on the FMSCI twitter handle. The schedule has three — yes, three! — national championship rallies in the month of January 2021 to close off the 2020 INRC calendar. Which, “Definitely needs to be re-evaluated,” according to Chandhok but first there’s the serious concerns of taking the entire rallying community on a two day trek to the North East of India for the first two rounds in December.
With the 2020 INRC reduced to a single day rally, the plan is to have Round 1 of the 2020 INRC on 16- 17 of December and 48 hours later have Round 2 on the weekend. Which defeats the whole purpose of single day rallies. We also need to question why the promoters are pushing to start the championship in the North East and risk the health of competitors and crews. Travel, car transport, service crew logistics, everything is complicated in normal situations and with Covid-19 showing no signs of abating why are we adding serious health risks to the rallying equation? How do you ensure that one unfortunate driver, mechanic or official doesn’t contract the virus on his — long! — way up and creates a hotspot in the rally HQ or service park? Or brings it down to Bangalore / Coimbatore and infects everybody else during the mad rallying scramble in January?
Between Bangalore and Coimbatore almost all the rally cars are South India-based. All the service crews are in the South. With some exceptions, notably Arjuna awardee Gaurav Gill, most of the drivers too are based in the South. So why not start in South India? The championship has in any case been South India-focused even in the best of times, and the entire rallying community is already familiar with the facilities and setup. Most crews can drive down and save themselves the exposure of hopping on to multiple flights and airports, not to forget the 12 hour drive in a cab from the airport in Guwahati to the rally location. With travel and transport costs eliminated, the rallies in the South will cost competitors a fraction of going to a remote location. Why foist these additional costs and logistical hurdles on competitors especially in this financially stressed times?
The single-day rally along with reduced competitive stage distance was experimented with in the 2016 season, for the same reasons that is being claimed for the upcoming 2020 season. To reduce costs. But, as we found out in 2016, single-day rallies only reduces the cost of staying in a hotel for one night. Every other expense remains unchanged starting with the entry fee and going to the service crew, prepping the car for the rally, testing, spares, tyres, and all the hundred other costs involved with getting ready for a rally. Basically it is an eye wash. You spend so much to take part in a rally and if your car breaks down in the first stage (say a minor electrical fault) of a single day rally, that’s it for all the effort one has put in. The lakhs of rupees spent to get ready for the rally is down the drain. At least on two-day rallies your crew can repair the car and you can do the Sunday’s stages — even get some leg points when the championship is at stake. It is in fact counter productive and that’s why the INRC moved to the extended format from the very next season.
That sounds impossible but is exactly what the promoters are foisting on the rallying community. January 2021 will have Round 3 on 9-10 January, two weeks later Round 4 in Hampi on 23-24 and a week later Round 5 in Bangalore on 30-31 January. How do competitors prepare? How do service crews turn around the cars in time for the next rally. Plus there is transport and logistics. Parts to be sourced. Some basic testing and setup to be done before the rally. There is no time being given for anything! How can such a calendar even be proposed, least of all finalised?
And aren’t the promoters forgetting the fact that apart from a couple of competitors, everybody else has a full-time job. Taking a break of a week for one rally is okay (I know, I have done it). Taking a month off from work is hardly okay (I would never have been able to!).
Unlike F1 or MotoGP or IPL, the INRC is hardly going to happen in a bio-bubble. If temperature checks at the entry to service park and rally HQ were enough, then Covid-19 wouldn’t be spreading like wildfire. With all the multiple airlines and airports that crews would have to use to get to the first rally, especially one in a remote region of the country, all it takes is for one person to contract it en-route, be a carrier, and spread the virus.
There won’t be a ceremonial start or a Spectator Special Stage but keeping crowds away was never a problem for the INRC. The problem is how to maintain social distancing within teams? When a car comes in for rally service there are ten mechanics that pounce on the car at the same time, while the driver and co-driver are also busy working on something else with the car. There won’t be any physical document checks but crews will have to hand over their suits, helmets etc to the service crew to handle while the scrutiny is done; the mechanics will be driving the cars to scrutiny; and even though service bays will be spread out the individual bays of team will still be the usual cramped, hectic quarters.
The team over at Arunachal does a very, very good job of organising the rallies. Everybody loves travelling to and competing in the North East. I have myself travelled extensively in the region and am all for holding more events there.
There is being brave and then there is being foolhardy. Let the last two rounds of the championship be held in the North East. The logical thing to do is let the season settle down, have two or three rallies in familiar locations, and convince competitors that the organisers and promoters have things under control. Just because the local government will cover the promoter costs is no reason for the promoters to put the lives of competitors, their families, and of service and support crews all at risk. Make no mistake, Covid-19 infections are only on the rise, and all across the country. All it takes is for one unfortunate driver, one mechanic, one official to contract it on the travels, and spread it within the community — and worse their families once they return.
And we haven’t even spoken about the impact the full rally circus going to remote locations will have on local communities. We might be okay, but we might end up being carriers that mess up regions that have been relatively well insulated from the pandemic. Being an INRC promoter is a great responsibility and the championship needs to be in safe hands, especially after the devastating impact of the INRC Jodhpur incident last year where inexperienced marshals led to the worst rallying accident in recent times. Which, I fear, has not been adequately considered while giving national championship status to the rally in Hampi (Round 4) without having conducted a contender round in 2019. Haven’t any lessons been learnt?
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