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“One hundred per cent the worst few weeks of my life”, says Gaurav Gill in an exclusive and very first interview since the accident at the INRC Rally of Jodhpur
It is exactly four weeks since the accident at the Jodhpur round of the Indian National Rally Championship, where Gaurav Gill, running first on the road in the Mahindra XUV300, collided with a bike coming the opposite way after breaching the security barriers and venturing onto the live stage. It’s a period that motorsport’s first Arjuna Awardee describes as “The worst few weeks of my life. I have to live with that kind of fear for the rest of my life.”
In this exclusive and very first interview since the accident, Gaurav Gill opens up about how the accident happened, “As soon as I hit the apex, coming out of the blind spot, I saw these people on a motorcycle in the middle,” and how negligence and inexperience of the marshals on the scene led to Indian rallying’s worst accident in recent memory, “Organisers should have intervened and taken charge of the situation but he chose to stay away so that made matters worse”. Gill adds, “The Federation should have acted by sending a legal team or somebody to manage the situation. Nobody understood how to deal with this. I knew I was in a soup; I had to take care of myself. So, I decided not to depend on anyone else and have my lawyer there and have people like Hardy and Bijoy support me, that’s all I could do.”
In a brutally frank conversation with editor Sirish Chandran, Gaurav Gill talks through the immediate aftermath of the accident, the support from his team and sponsors and how he did not run away, and offers a shocking account of who should have but weren’t there to support him and lays out important suggestions so that such an incident never, ever gets repeated. And he doesn’t hold back, even taking on the critics who have questioned his Arjuna Award.
Gaurav Gill must have analysed the INRC Jodhpur accident a million times in his head. He says, “I was coming across to the last corner and it was for me a very short 4+ left flat. Basically a left kink but little sharper than a kink, but take the racing line and it is flat. My speed on the GPS was 163kmph or 165kmph as I turned into the corner. I took the corner and lined the car up for the apex and as soon as I hit the apex, coming out of the blind spot, I saw these people on a motorcycle in the middle. I was on the left foot [rally drivers use left foot braking to reduce reaction times] so I immediately slammed the brakes but it was not enough. The road was 12 feet wide, maybe 15. I couldn’t go anywhere. I shouted. We hit those guys coming across on the bike; hit those guys smack in the middle of the car.
“I saw all of them being catapulted, thrown away over on top of the car. Everything happened so fast that forget seeing their faces or how many people there were, I couldn’t even see the colour of their clothes. That’s how quickly it all happened.
“Musa and I couldn’t understand what the hell had happened. It was not something that we saw for 50 metres or 100 metres and we knew we were going to hit. Or sometimes in a rally accident you know you’re going to crash, crash, crash and finally you crash and stop. It was more of a lightning strike that struck me. Like bam and that’s it, gone. It was a flash in front of the eyes which came and went by without any notice. Without any clue as to what has happened also.
“So, then I just parked the car on the left.”
“I was obviously hurt, my hands and chest from the impact. I started understanding this is not a good situation. I parked in front of the marshal, told him to stop the rally, go back and see what happened and call an ambulance.
“As per local reports, cop reports, witnesses and post mortem, the cars behind us went over them [the people on the motorcycle]. I really can’t comment on this. I didn’t see it. [Amittrajit] Ghosh saw me on the side and he picked me up to get checked up by a doctor. I again told the marshals to stop rally but they didn’t realise how big the incident was.”
“They didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Neither did they have the experience to control the situation or react to it. I think they were just paranoid and they froze. They decided to stay around there and do nothing about it. In some of videos, I could see up to car number 5 comes to the finish of the stage. Car 5 would be at least 10 - 12 minutes after. That meant the ambulance was not informed or rather the stage commander was not informed. Almost 11-odd minutes. That’s a lot of time in case of an emergency.”
“It was the lack of experience from these guys. They had never attended a rally which has these kinds of speeds involved. Sadly, that’s the situation. And they were all and even the locals were prepared for people who drive around in the other cross-country kind of formats and they expect Gypsys to come at 70-80kmph, and not at triple digit speeds, 150kmph, to come around a corner. I think people take things lightly because of lack of exposure.”
“I was left alone. I had Hardy [Sanjay Sharma, motorsport head at JK Tyre] and Bijoy [Kumar, head of Mahindra Adventure] backing me and I was hanging in there. In fact, my family and we all got together to appoint a lawyer. Organisers should have taken the onus to help me. What we hear is he packed up and ran away. And his phone was switched off. Had he been there, it could have been easily settled or taken control of the situation. He was a completely local guy. He would have got the local guys together to understand what should have been done next.
“My lawyer went to the police station in evening, representing me, and asking how do we go about this.”
“I was never even called once by the cops. In fact, it was my lawyer who actually went to the police station to sort out the matter. Nobody’s lawyer represented anybody but mine. That meant I was obviously available from day one to investigate the matter with the police. It was all absolutely nonsense [talk that he fled Jodhpur]. When you win awards such as the Arjuna and these sorts of situations arise people want to pull you down. If you can’t climb the ladder, they want to pull you down. There are a bunch of guys, we have already understood who they are — in fact it is quite shocking to know who they are. They are all targeting me to tarnish my image. But doesn’t really make a difference. I know who I am and I will still be the best and the fastest.”
“It is not settled in terms of the legal system but it is under control. Initially the police made an FIR with IPC 304 — which is a non-bailable offence and culpable homicide. After investigation the police and government understood what the nature of accident was and changed it to 304A which is death due to negligence, not necessarily by driving or anything but it can be death due to any sort of negligence. This is a bailable offence and under that, the proceedings in the court are now going to start and they have granted me bail. I have got bail now.
“Hopefully before the proceedings start and the arguments start, we will ask for justice and say that it is not our fault and relieve us from 304A.
“Recently what happened, 5-6 days ago in Kerala at a local athletics competition, a spot boy was struck in the head by a hammer throw when he went to pick up a javelin and was killed. Police didn’t arrest the athlete but put a case of negligence on the organisers. Same when a train is going through a green signal and people decide to jump tracks and get killed the train operator cannot be blamed.”
“These things can happen in the future also. Considering the nature of the sport which happens in open grounds and fields with access to the public and not 100 per cent barricaded arena. There should be lawyers on call all the time, 24x7, for any driver who competes in rallying. After all the Federation [FMSCI] is the body we drive under and this is something we should all learn from, because there was nobody for me.
“From the Federation side there was nothing at all. It was all me, myself.”
“They should be given a contender round one year in advance to show capability. And if they are not in a situation to run due to lack of manpower or lack of experience the Federation or a team from the Rally Comm should ensure there is a team of experienced marshals there to run the rally. For example, when we ran the Delhi round, we knew we didn’t have an experienced team so we had the entire team from Nashik to come and run the entire rally. Just to save a few lakh rupees you could end up losing lives and pay a heavy penalty for all this.
In this situation I could have gotten hurt very badly. Anything could have happened to me and Musa [Sherif, co-driver] because of such a lapse in security.”
“I can say clearly had the organiser been experienced he could have taken the key out of the biker’s bike and told him no you can’t go. It is such a simple thing to do. Fine he can fight with him but the marshals should understand the gravity of situation. Had they understood the car is going to come at 150kmph he would have done so. Because he had no idea, he would have thought he’s going to come at 70, 80, 90kmph, aree side se chale jayega [he will pass us from the side], general North Indian attitude is this.”
“Federation [Rally Commission] has somebody who manages the course, like a safety officer for the rally, who understands the stages and sees how safe the area is to drive. But what was the qualification of the person? The person who was involved in this rally or the rally before has never driven a rally car in his life. Or even co-driven. So how can he take the decision to let the rally run? Who is he? We need somebody who has gone and driven proper rally cars, not Gypsys or Fiats. Fine, even if he is from 80s or 90s, he needs to be a driver of a certain calibre who can assess the situation where cars will run at 150kmph - 180kmph and how safe it is for spectators and drivers.
“When you use a local area that has villagers or villages or a public road which is heavily used, traffic should be either avoided or have 100 per cent police backup. And there should be road closure information which was again not there. These are small things that can result in massive deaths.
“This is a sport where you cannot have people without experience. It can straight away mean life and death situation. These are things people don’t realise but for me as car number 1 these are the biggest issues I have to face sometimes.”
“We were supposed to just drive through. There was so much traffic that I could see. They could not understand. The Zero Car has to go 10 min in advance of the first car. I told them I would want to go less than 10-minute interval because I was not confident of the traffic. But instead of sending me within 10 minutes they sent me after 18 minutes. That’s a very big gap. That is why all these things happened. People and locals think there is no race or rally traffic coming so race is over and let us go through. These are small issues that experienced people should be there to manage.”
“It’s not easy mentally to go through this and be normal. It’s a very, very difficult situation. Even from someone like me who is a very strong-headed person… it has 100 per cent been the worst few weeks of my life. I’m going to live with that kind of fear for the rest of my life, wherein I don’t hit somebody unknowingly, or in a situation where I’m not expecting anyone which makes matters even worse. It can just ruin you completely.
“When I drove a car after a few days after the incident I was not even confident to drive on the road. Every time I saw a bike, I would brake 100 metres away from the bike, change lanes, obviously it was affecting me.
I’m trying to be mentally strong. And training myself to be even stronger to get it out of my system so that I can compete and go back to being who I was. I am training hard physically and mentally.
“It will take me a few stages to get my bearings, to get my rhythm back. But I am confident that I will get up to speed. I have no other choice. This is who I am and this is who I’ve been all my life. I have to make it or break it.
“He is generally a conservative person so once we went through this, he was emotionally very hurt as well. This has been a big setback for both of us. We are just trying to act normal, be normal, just do what normal people do. Push it out of the system.”
“Some people who are not educated enough about the sport think it could be my fault. Even very educated people ask my wife when she goes to the clinic or school how did it happen… the way the media reported it, it sent out a wrong message about the sport and the incident, like I was driving rashly. It’s not easy to live with this.”
“I missed out on WRC Wales. It was too early to jump into a rally car and drive again. We all thought, including my sponsors, that we were not ready for the event. I will also be going to Australia now to take therapy from one of the top sport psychologists. It will be part of my mental training program.”
“I had a great outing last year and I don’t expect anything less. I was fastest in the stages. I’m going to be registered this year so I’m hoping to be in the top and try and repeat my performance from last year and lead the rally.”
“It is how people look at the award, at the awardee. Some people like it and some don’t. Once you get to this stage of your life you have to accept some people like you and some don’t like you. And it will keep happening. You continue to do what you do best and impress the rest.
“One thing is for sure, they don’t like the sport nor do they respect the sport, nor do they want the sport to grow. Otherwise they won’t do these immature things. I think this is completely sold out journalism, completely full of agendas. I have no time to care about all this.”
“I first would like to thank the rally community, all of them, for standing by my side and to support me. Including all the unwanted controversy.
People didn’t pay any heed to all the controversy or even care and it was good to see that. That shows how much they love the sport. They were interested in me and my well-being and how everything was panning out. I really respect all of them, love them. I will make the effort to be with each one of them, give any advice, any help.
“I can’t wait to go back to the INRC. I feel like it’s a big family of us rally enthusiasts, going and doing what we love to do.”