Sherco Rally Factory rider Harith Noah says the 2021 Dakar rally will be an interesting one
Harith Noah speaks about his 2020 Dakar campaign, the training he underwent both during the lockdown and with teammate Michael Metge in France, as well as his mental philosophy
With TVS Racing officially pulling out of the 2021 Dakar rally, Harith Noah will participate as a privateer with the Sherco Rally Factory Team astride the Sherco TVS RTR 450 Rally motorcycle, and will be sponsored by TVS Racing. Harith had a difficult debut at the 2020 Dakar rally, with technical issues on day 3 forcing him to retire. However, being part of the ‘Dakar Experience’ class gave him valuable insight of the lay of the land as well as the pace of the rally.
Currently in quarantine in Saudi Arabia and waiting for the 2021 Dakar to start (on January 3), he spoke on how coming out of the Covid shutdown saw him shift base (temporarily) to France, where he underwent a rigorous training regimen with his Sherco TVS teammates, in preparation for the Andalucia rally, where he finished a commendable 23rd overall.
About the 2021 Dakar bike, he speaks about the changes, the effects of which he already witnessed during his Andalucia attempt. This, coupled with the extensive roadbook training he underwent under Michael Medge’s tutelage, is what he believes will be the defining point of his upcoming Dakar attempt.
Finally, he spoke briefly about how his educational background in sports science and how it helps him hone both his physical as well as mental makeup with regards to keeping a positive attitude during a sporting event as protracted as well as tiresome as the Dakar rally
Here’s the full interview:
Sirish Chandran – How have you been preparing for the Dakar this year?
Harith Noah – After last year’s Dakar, I came back to India and had a small surgery to remove some ‘hardware’ from my collarbone. I then had a small vacation, during which I had already started with physiotherapy, and then the Covid situation started, which affected training, especially outdoor training. But I still continued my fitness training and riding on my private track till things got a bit better. It was actually good, as it was the first time I was in one place for so long, so it definitely helped me focus – as there was no place to go, no races or testing to do. Though not ideal, I think I made the most of it. And once things improved, I flew to Andalucia which actually went pretty well; I was satisfied with the stage-wise performance, considering I didn’t have much time on the rally bike, or had a chance for much roadbook training. I was just doing motocross and flat track. I continued to stay in France and train with Mika (Michael Medge). We did a lot of roadbook training as well as fitness training. Overall, I learnt a lot over what I already knew from my last Dakar, and I feel much stronger physically as well. It’s going to be very different from last year, given the circumstances. For example, all the briefings are now over the phone rather than in person.
S – After Andalucia, and the training you’ve undergone is France, how much has it helped you?
H – It’s helped a lot. One thing Mika and I worked on, was to reduce the nerves you have in the beginning – something which caught me out last year, due to the crash. This year the plan is to, especially in the first few days, really take it smooth. It’s a long race, and the second week is especially going to be more important in terms of strength and endurance.
S – You’re in a good position, of having done a lot of stages last year. You have experience of the terrain in Saudi Arabia. So how different are this year’s stages going to be from last year? Also, how much of your training going to help, considering you haven’t done much in the desert?
H – Yes I haven’t much training in the desert. Plus, this year’s stages are 100 per cent new. The organisers say there’s now even one kilometre from last year. As you correctly said, riding in the desert is something I missed out on this year. For training, we usually go to Morocco, but that didn’t happen for me because of Covid, which is the same with many others. However, that feeling, which you get from riding in the dunes and the sand, is missing. But then again, it’s a long race, so after a few stages, you’ll definitely get the hang of things.
S – About the difference in stages, what have the organisers indicated? Will there be more dunes or flat terrain?
H – I’ve written in the specifics on my computer, so I can remember more easily. Broadly what they said was that the routes won’t be the same as last year, so there will be new tracks, and stage-wise, I don’t know whether there will be more sand, it’ll probably be about the same. Last year, we went from Jeddah in the north, coming south with a rest day in Riyadh and continued further south. This time, we’ll be going south and returning back north. So it is somewhat a reverse of last year, geographically. But there are a couple of stages that will be 100 per cent sand, two days before the rest day I think. Other stages, like 4 and 5, won’t be very long, about 400 to 500km, but with very technical navigation. Also, in week two, the eleventh stage will be 100km of just dunes, which wasn’t there last year. Also, the average speeds are lower in the dunes, what with going up and down the dunes, so it takes much longer. So, some days will definitely be long this year.
S – How different is your bike this year? And what changes did you suggest over your setup last year?
H – There are a couple of improvements. First is the quickshifter, which we tested in Andalucia. It’s surely an advantage for the fast, straight sections. Besides that, there have been improvements in power output. The suspension, too, has been optimised. However, I haven’t had a chance to test it in the desert, but I made the most of it where I could test it. And in any case, there wasn’t much I specifically put in; the quickshifter was a joint conclusion, in terms of riding ease. Oh, and a good thing for me is the option to use new tyres every day, as opposed to a total of six rear tyres which the elite riders are allowed.
S – How much of an advantage does using more tyres give you?
H – It depends on the stages; the length and terrain. If it’s completely sand, the tyres don’t really get used too much. But if it’s a long stage with a lot of hard-packed high-speed, WRC-type tracks then the tyres get really eaten up. And , it’s a big advantage when you have new tyres at every stage.
S – Last year did you find any problems with the roadbook?
H – Not as much as I thought. Before the race I thought it’ll be very difficult, navigation-wise. There were a couple of stages where I got lost – the one stage which got cancelled halfway due to crashes, the marathon stage. There was a spot there where many people got lost, all at the same time. In a rally, when people get lost in front of you, it gets really tricky, because the first person gets lost, then the second, then the third…maybe when the tenth person comes by, someone has found a way out. By now, the first person would have lost lots of time, while the last person hardly lost his pace. So this spot last year, during the marathon stage where everyone got lost, I turned my bike off and had to look around for where to go next, and this was the case with many others. The roadbook sometimes catches you unawares. You have to riding ‘with’ the roadbook: go through every note, and every kilometre. Otherwise whenever there’s a tricky note or section you could have missed, you do miss; and then you have no option than to stop the bike and look around.
S – So have you been training to better learn to read the roadbook?
H – Yes of course. With Mika, a majority of the training in France was the roadbook: two roadbooks every week. And in France I opened, I was the first one riding, so there were no tracks to follow, which was much different than the Dakar, where I start after a couple of riders. Now, even in Dakar I would say it is easier in the short term if you don’t follow the roadbook all that much, but if you look at the overall picture, if you want to be better at rally raids in the next three or five years, and want to be at the top, eventually you have to get the roadbook right. All the top riders, the guys who start the stage, go 100 per cent as per the roadbook. SO it’s better to learn it now and follow it, even if it seems to be slower than simply following the lines, but it’s good to learn like that. I did a lot of practice in France, and the roadbooks are much tighter there: there might be 3-4 notes within a kilometre, as opposed to longer formats like the Dakar which may have one note every few kilometres or so, hence you need to be a lot more alert.
S – How would you rate yourself now vis-à-vis you teammates, having ridden with them in France during testing?
H – I actually haven’t ridden with them, so my teammates in the Sherco team are [Lorenzo] Santolino and Rui [Jorge Goncalves Dias], and I have only ridden with them in Andalucia, which was also the first rally for Rui, and 2021 will be his first Dakar. Santolino, meanwhile, is the veteran. So 2021 will definitely be interesting. Besides, all of them are healthy and fit.
S – About the team, now that you’re the only Indian at the TVS Dakar team, it makes you the de facto team leader for TVS racing. So does that put you under any extra pressure?
H – Yes of course. But more than that putting pressure on me, I put pressure on me! So what I’m working now is reducing that pressure. In a race like the Dakar, the nerves are high, you’re eager to go fast, but you have to focus to not go so fast as to make any mistakes, especially in the initial days. Better to ease into it, and a rally raid, from what I’ve learnt from Mika, is a sport that takes time to learn, and you have to be patient. So going fast is easy, but going fast, while navigating properly is a skill that takes a while to master. Last year I finished the Dakar but in the ‘Experience’ category, and this time around I want to finish it in a competitive class.
S – How strong has TVS’ support been? How important has it been for your development?
H – The first time I raced at a national level was 2011, and at that time Arvind Pangaonkar was the manager, and somewhere in 2011 or 2012 I got the call, and back then I was just a kid, so it was a dream to ride with TVS. So of course I said yes, and from then we have been gradually improving, and winning a few races, and then a few championships. It’s really great that they believe in me, and support me completely even through these difficult situations we have now.
Sudipto – Speaking to your TVS teammates, they use a mental technique of visualisation to prepare for a race. Can you talk us through it?
H – I did my graduation in sports science, and visualisation is actually widespread technique. However, I would do this technique more then I was racing supercross. What I would visualise is the first corner because it’s the most important one, and if you get out of it first, that takes care of 80 per cent of the race! I do it comparatively less during a rally. Nevertheless, it helps the neuro-muscular connection, keeping your reflexes ready.
S – What is sport science all about?
H – I studied sport science after high school, as I was always interested in sports. It is a combination of sports psychology, biomechanics and physiology. Besides, it helped me during all the training I did during the initial days of racing.
Sudipto – From the point of view of biomechanics, is there any specific exercises of techniques you include to better acquaint yourself to a bike?
H – Of course. For instance, when it is a cold day, we need to warm up – though not so much in Indian climates – to get the blood pumping and the muscles warmed up for riding. This helps prevent injury. We also need to warm up the wrists, which is the main thing I do before riding, especially when it’s cooler outside.
Sudipto – Just before you set out for a stage, is there any techniques you calm yourself down mentally?
H – When I would race supercross, I would try different techniques before a race, because it’s really subjective. Some people work better when they’re pumped, while others choose to close their eyes and take a deep breath before a race. For me it’s better if I’m calm, and keep yourself in a zone and not get affected too much by things. During a rally, there will be times when people overtake you. At that time, you need to just do your thing and not overthink the situation, so as not to make a mistake.