Desert Storm 2017 – What happens when you go unprepared? – Part 1

Desert Storm 2017 – What happens when you go unprepared? – Part 1

Desert Storm 2017 – evo India gets a taste of the toughest rally in India

This story begins on the fifth day of the Dakar at the start of the year. It’s late at night at the bivouac in San Salvadorde Jujuy in Argentina, a scene of frenetic activity. Mechanics are furiously mending their cars, bikes and quads; drivers and riders have finished working on their road books and are asleep in their motor homes (or, for those on a budget, tents); the trucks are just coming in, the ground shuddering as a Kamaz rumbles past me; and I slide into a spot of day dreaming. Maybe day dreaming is not the appropriate word considering it’s late at night but I’ll describe the picture being painted in my head: it’s that of your correspondent – a little older, a little greyer, rocking a beard – back at the Dakar, but this time with a competitor tag round his neck. The next morning I watch C S Santosh being flagged off at half past four. Five years ago if somebody had suggested an Indian would take part in the world’s greatest motorsport event I’d have laughed at his face but here’s an Indian rider who showed the rest of the country that the Dakar wasn’t an impossible dream. Just watching him go through hell and back, day after day on the Dakar, is deeply inspirational and a match lights up in my head. “Bro, I want to do the Desert Storm ”, I ping Aniruddha.

“Bro, I want to do the Desert Storm”

Aniruddha, henceforth referred to as Anu in the interests of brevity, is my go-to guy for anything to do with motorsport, especially rallying. He’s the guy who brought everything and everybody together to kick-start our national championship rally team Slideways Industries. He has also competed twice in the Indian version of the Dakar, the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm, and so knows what it takes. “You mad or what?” replies Anu. “Rally starts in 3 weeks.” And so begins a series of extraordinary events…

Meet the ’ol girl – Armygreen Gypsy

On Republic Day a friend at Maruti Suzuki tags me in a tweet, a picture of a Gypsy leading the Presidential convoy, the caption says 30 years and still going strong. I can only think of the Merc G-Wagen with a longer lifespan and when you think of it, isn’t that a remarkable innings? Our armed forces still swear by it. The Gerrari boy’s wildly modified Gypsy won last year’s Rain Forest Challenge. And it remains the go-to rally car for rally raid events across the country. Of course you could do it in a Maruti Suzuki Grand Vitara but the only one I couldfind, at two week’s notice, carried a thirty lakh rupee price tag! Rent for a Gypsy is under a lakh of rupees. Service and spares is another lakh of rupees. And that’s that. It’s a remarkably affordable rally car, a remarkably resilient and tough rally car. You might break down, the Gypsy will never break down. Except, the Gypsy I’m staring at looks like it has been to both the wars on the western front. I can’t really blame my friend Sandeep Sharma, a.k.a Sandy, for finding this Armygreen Gypsy for me – I gave him three days notice. But that’s the thing about the Gypsy, no matter what it looks like, no matter what you think it can or cannot do, the Gypsy will keep on going. I feel sorry for the hell we will be putting it through in the Rajasthan theatre but I don’t think the Gypsy needs my sympathy. No time to waste then. First things first we slapped on a fresh set tyres, instantly doubling both the value and capability of the Gypsy. Turns out it was the only thing to work flawlessly through out the rally but we will come to that later. Then it was off to a spare part market to get the Gypsy ready for battle. Old windscreen is kicked out (I’m not exaggerating, kicked out!) and a new one goes into the rubber beading using a rope trick, no sealant business here. New tail lamps and headlamps. Vents for the roof scoop (which fell off in two hours). New horns. New fuses. Stickers bearing our names and blood group. A bracket for the spare wheels. In between all this Anu, who has gone to pick up the Hella 3000 auxiliary lights, calls and asks how the Gypsy is looking. “Feels tight”, I lie through my teeth. Don’t want him taking the next flight back to Pune! Next morning we realise the extent of our very own unpreparedness. We don’t have our insurance in place, or indemnities, or pictures, or a tow rope, or a GPS, or a medical kit… I could go on with all that we did not have. In my defence, in all my years of rallying, Nikhil Pai my regular co-driver would handle all this. Anyways the Northern Motorsport guys are super organised and I also discover a smile can take you very far in pre-event documentation.

Wheel alignment? We don’t even balance the wheels!

An hour later our Gypsy is in the stickering bay where the visual appeal of the ’ol girl is doubled. And then we fail technical scrutiny. Turns out the thickness mandated for the fuel tank guard has gone up and it has taken everybody unawares. So it’s off to a mechanic to get that sorted out, who in the process slices a wire that turns out to be very important in getting the Gypsy cranked up, and by the time we are done the scrutineers have gone home. Next morning we get all the OK stickers. Take the ceremonial start in the afternoon, buy a bunch of supplies from Big Bazaar and head off to Hanumangarh – an eight-hour drive that gets me reacquainted with a non-power steering car after, I think, 15 years. I ask Sandy who will set up the Gypsy. What set up, he asks incredulously. I’ve rallied a fair bit and even when I competed in the Esteem and Baleno we used to set up our cars. Tear up and down an empty road with our tuner sitting in the passenger seat with a laptop tuning the ECU. More tearing up and down a twisty road to fine tune the suspension settings. With the Gypsy there’s nothing. Forget Reigers or anything, it runs original shocks though with two dampers at every corner. And… wait for this… it still runs leaf springs, though they’re stiffer Tiger leaf springs. Wheel alignment? We don’t even balance the wheels!

Smooth sailing?

If I can give you just one piece of advice it will be this – don’t wake up three weeks before a cross-country rally. We didn’t test our car, didn’t spend time in a workshop with it, didn’t learn how to drive it, and we were going to pay the price for it all. Driving to Hanumangarh we discovered that the transfer case was jammed and wouldn’t shift into four-low. Luckily RK, our service crew chief, had anticipated problems with our ’ol girl and had hired a workshop where his guys worked through the night to get her in some sort of shape for the start of the rally. Day one, stage one. Sandy comes up to me. “Do not drive this like your INRC car.” What he means is if I barrel into a corner at the speed I am used to we will be on our roof. It means if I chuck it into a corner like I have been taught, we will understeer into Pakistan. It means if I attack a bump like you must in an INRC event, our spines will be crushed. As we chew the kilometres I drive the Gypsy like we are in Rally Sweden, using the sand banks to bounce it back on track (which Aman later tells me is the completely wrong thing to do). Not only is there no power steering but the steering has so much play that I’m sawing at the ’wheel just to keep it straight. It’s exhausting work, made even more exhausting by the fact that she has an overheating problem. And on sand there’s so much resistance that it feels like it isn’t moving; I keep screaming at the ’ol girl to move, move, move and if I pressed the throttle any harder there would be a hole in the firewall. Half way into the stage the temperature needle is above the H mark and Anu tells me to stick it in fifth and save the engine. In first service Sanjay Agarwal, a fellow competitor driving a Franken-Vitara (V6 motor from the old XL7 into the body shell of the 2.4 Vitara) retards the timing so the engine runs cooler. While that has a slight benefit it reduces the power even more. More overheating on the next two stages and on the final transport to Bikaner, the engine boils over, the coolant bottle explodes and steam rises from the bonnet. Fortunately for us RK’s service team is just behind and we drain half a water tanker into the radiator, realise it is choked, replace the radiator and limp to the final time control in Bikaner before handing the Gypsy to RK where they again work through the night to keep me in the competition.

Where’s the nearest airport?

Eight kilometres into the first stage of day two I’m parked up, figuring out the quickest way to get back to Pune. The engine died on us. First we think it has overheated and blown but it’s still cranking over (not firing) so it has to be something electrical. We check, swap and replace all the fuses. Nada. Swap and replace the two relays. No go. Check all the wire, battery terminals. Nothing. Anu says it’s going to be a long day before we’re towed out of this mess. I look around and there’s not a single tree to sit under while I figure out options on the Make My Trip app.

And then we meet Ralli

What a spectacularly named rallyist! Akshay Ralli and his buddy Rohit Chhoker are first time rallyists and in all the excitement had forgotten to pick up their time card at the day’s start in Bikaner. Naturally they were disqualified when they came to the start of the stage but after much pleading the Sweeper Car allowed them to follow him to get a taste of the dunes before heading back home. With nothing to gain or lose our new best friends are happy to help us out and with our tow strap latched on to Ralli’s Team Godwin Gypsy we towed ourselves back to Bikaner where, as luck would have it, we bumped into our service crew chilling at a dhaba. We also repay the favour and get RK to sort out some issues with Ralli’s Gypsy. These guys are running in the Ndure class that while running to the TSD format takes the same route as the Xtreme guys. And the average speeds on the sand stages are high enough for them to have to really drive their heart out. The Ndure and the Xplore (for two-wheel drive cars, skipping the dunes) is where the next generation of rally drivers will come from and I personally feel these guys should be supported and promoted even more than the Xtreme competitors. After all this is where I graduated from, after winning the TSD category, overall (no Ndure or Xplore classifications back then), back in 2004.

Desert Storm 2019 is approaching fast, stay tuned for the Part 2 of “Desert Storm 2017 – What happens when you go unprepared?”

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