“I almost quit the first day.” From there to winning the Rally 2 class of the 2024 Dakar. We talk to Harith Noah about his Dakar chronicles, behind-the-scenes and what the future holds
Sherco TVS Rally rider Harith Noah has made India proud, becoming the first Indian to ever set foot on the Dakar podium. The Kerala man topped his class in the 2024 Dakar and came 11th overall. We talk about how he trained for Dakar, training in PlayStation games, tyre choices during the Dakar and why he doesn’t like knowing his results during the rally.
Karan Ramgopal: This is a really big feat that you have accomplished and how does this feel?
Harith Noah: I think it's difficult to put in words. When I finished the last stage, that's when I first came to know where I finished. And with all the results, which was first in the category as well as 11th overall. It's crazy. It's so intense and especially Stage 10, that's what keeps coming to my brain when I think about Dakar and how I did, so, really great feeling and also when I got back, all the support and all the messages and stuff I got on Instagram once I started using that. So, a really nice feeling for sure.
KR: What sort of preparation went into this Dakar?
HN: In Dakar, it's not just one year. It's like multiple years of a lot of training. The fitness training was the same as every year. A lot of fitness training – which I'm pretty good at. My fitness is one of the best when you look at all the athletes. And this year I had support from Red Bull and I did quite some testing at Red Bull APC. It's like an athlete performance centre and we focused on actually gaining weight for rallying. We thought it's better to have more weight so the bike works better. So, that's what we did in the form of once a month.
So, that was a really good improvement because I did the test two times, once mid-year somewhere and then once just before the Dakar. Other than fitness training, obviously bike riding is most important. Trying to improve my skills in the places I'm not that great at throughout the year was always the most important, more than fitness even, because that's where I'm lacking. And I started riding when I was 16, which is not that young. So I still have a lot of catch-up to do. Throughout the year I worked on speed, technique and navigation as well, not as much as I would have liked. I would have liked to do a little more. I just did one training session in Morocco on the bike and a few hours on the PlayStation. But yeah, it worked out pretty well. And yeah, I think I know more now about what I have to work on. And I'm looking forward to that process.
KR: Did you say, you did navigation training on the PlayStation?
HN: Yeah, so basically there's this game called Dakar Desert Rally and in the newer version, I'm there in the game, which is pretty cool. You can ride me (laughing). You can play it on the PlayStation 4 or 5 and Xbox 360 and all that stuff. So the navigation in the game, when you put it at the highest difficulty, it's pretty realistic. The gameplay is really good, like the physics and all that stuff. But the navigation is maybe even more difficult than in real life because you don't see where you came from because the lines disappear. But it's good to just keep the mind working like that. So I try to do it pretty often, especially before the race, to keep my brain aware of looking at these numbers and all that stuff.
KR: How much time did you get on the rally bike this time around? Apart from your regular training. I feel like getting a good time on the rally bike also helps quite a bit, right?
HN: Yeah, I did a week of training, or maybe 10 days.
KR: This is right before the Dakar or somewhere in the middle of the year.
HN: Before the Dakar in December, and obviously I did a couple of races this year like Turkey, Spain and Morocco, which was also like (all put together) another two to three weeks which is nice but training-wise like on the bike I had one week in December which was also really good. December training, some riders prefer not to do and some prefer to not train at all the month before the Dakar because obviously you don't want to get injured.
KR: When you started this Dakar, what were your expectations?
HN: At the back of my mind, I knew that I finished 20th (in 2021) and I want to be better than that but for me, it was really important and what I try to focus on is just trying to live in the now and try to take it one kilometre at a time and try to do my best every kilometre navigation as well as riding, push it when I felt good and take it easy when I felt like it's not my day or not my section in the stage. I tried to not bother about the results because at the end of the day when you finish the race – which is the most important goal because finishing is not so easy. So when you finish the rally and you know that you gave your best every day wherever you finish, if that's the 18th or 25th you should be happy with it ideally because that's all you have right, you can't go faster than you can go. So that was my goal and that should be my goal next year as well because I feel like that works for me, trying to just do it day by day and try to focus on the present moment.
KR: One of the things that you do during the rally is you try to stay away from seeing your positions and your results. How do you manage to do that and how do you manage to stay away from all the noise that's happening around you?
HN: I don't use Instagram, someone else posts for me. I have this Instagram channel which I just post on, that's the only thing I do. Every day my results were on my Instagram but I only wrote the caption like about the day and then I sent it to someone and they posted it with the results. So I didn't do any social media. And all the people that were close to me, I told them that they shouldn't tell me, the team as well. Sometimes in between some people told me some things and as soon as I heard I tried to stop them and after that, whenever I met someone I told them, “Hey, just letting you know, don’t tell me the results.” A news guy told me three, four days before the finish that he was interviewing me because I had won a stage in Rally 2, saying you are now second overall and he was gonna say the minutes and I was like, “No no stop, don't tell me.” So it's not easy. Before the last day, I had a really long thought about knowing or not knowing the results overall in the category. I also had a discussion with my psychologist because when you look at it it's the last day and I knew I was second or first because of the news guy. So if I know there are two options, one is that I'm behind and I will be stressed because I would need to push to win, but you don't feel comfortable because you have stress in your head. The other option is that I'm ahead and if I am ahead then I would not push and I can take it easy so when you take it easy, at that time you crash. Most of the time when you have a bad crash, most of the time you're not pushing and you're just riding along – not always but most of the time. So then I finally decided not to know it and I just gave it all in the last stage and when I finished I got to know the position.
KR: How was this rally overall, results aside, how was the rally in terms of how the bike felt, mechanical issues, and crashes? Were they fewer and farther in between than otherwise or was it much better?
HN: Yeah it was much better. I think it's almost impossible to do a Dakar without any problems. I would say generally looking at the whole of 2024 Dakar, it's the most difficult Dakar I've done, physically as well as navigation. I think navigation was way tougher this year. Almost every day there were some difficult parts and problems, the first day I felt really bad, I had a super bad headache and cramps everywhere in my body. I think I was dehydrated, so I almost quit the first day because I was feeling really bad before the finish. Then the whole first week I felt alright physically and the last day of the first week I got really cold in the night and my clothes didn't dry for the next day so I was riding with that clothes and I got sick on the rest day and I was sick throughout the second week. I had an issue in stage five, the bike started misfiring and I really didn't know what to do so I took it easy to the finish, I couldn't give it full gas basically and once we were done we checked the problems and there was some sand and dirt into the fuel joints so the fuel line filters were filled with sand. We cleaned that up and then from that day onwards we made sure that the fuel goes in through a filter before it goes into the tank. In Stage 6, many riders, including me also had problems with the fuel consumption of the bike. The fuel stops were almost at the limit, at the first fuel stop, before I reached I saw (Pablo) Quintanilla, he was stopped and he was asking for fuel. And as soon as I saw him, my bike started bogging because there was no more fuel. I have two fuel pumps and two tanks in the front, so I changed the fuel pump, there was a little left on the other side and I cruised my way to the refuelling and then the next refuelling was 220-230km after the first one, so I rode very cautiously during the 48-hour stage because I didn't want to finish my Dakar because of fuel problems, so it was a difficult stage. It was also difficult to ride because you want to go fast but you should think about the fuel as well. Other than that the bike worked well, especially in the second week.
KR: What is the exact difference between Rally 2 and Rally GP?
HN: In the Rally GP there are mostly the top factory teams like Honda, KTM and Husqvarna. There is not much difference because there’s an overall ranking and you can still win a stage even if you're in Rally 2, it doesn't change anything. The only advantage with Rally 2 is you are allowed to use different tyres during the race. So let's say today is a sand-only stage, then I would use a Baja tyre which gives more grip, and when it's rocky I would use the normal rally tyre which is more durable. In Rally GP you can't do that, you have to stick to one type of tyre. The other one is when you don't finish a stage in Rally GP, you're out immediately, and you can’t continue the next day. But in Rally 2 if you don't finish a stage, you can continue but you're not in the overall classification.
KR: Do you plan to opt for Rally GP next year?
HN: I haven't decided yet but I think I would stick to Rally 2 just to build more confidence. For me, it doesn't change anything at all, for me and my mindset and how I ride, it's just to ride every day as fast as I can and try to stay on two wheels. So it doesn't change anything.
KR: You said the preparation for a rally is not just before the Rally but it's for a few years combined. So what are you looking at for next year, when do you begin preparing and what do you have in mind for next year in terms of preparation and goals?
HN: I haven't thought too much about it but obviously with the fitness, I think I know what to do, what to work on. I would again go to Red Bull APC, at least two times, maybe more to retest how my body is now and how it improves or changes throughout the year and also try to do more navigation training this year, that's definitely on the list of to-do things. A lot of training on the bike, I think I would need to focus a little more on training in rocky conditions. I'm actually not that bad, not as bad as I was before. So, just a combination of all kinds of training and to try to do everything.
KR: Do you have any specific rallies in mind for this year?
HN: At the moment, no. We are gonna sit down and talk and decide. Generally, we take part in the Morocco rally which is in October, and then this year one of the world championships is in Portugal and Spain, which could also be on the list but nothing is fixed yet.
KR: How has your experience been with TVS racing, both pre-Dakar and during the Dakar and how's everything going so far?
HN: It's really good. We are a team and we work together to do our best but at the same time, they give me my space and accept how I look at things, which is not the result, which is strange when you look at it from the outside. But at the same time, we got here with that. so it must be working. It's a really good feeling to be associated with someone who understands me as a person but wants the same as me which is to be the best or be the best version of myself. So it's super great. The support has been there 100 per cent throughout the year with training, with the bike, with the equipment and everything. Even the Sherco team and the TVS Sherco team this year here in Dakar supported me.
I feel like the team made a really good choice of choosing the tyres. I remember a few stages where we chose the Baja tyre and we were the only one with the Baja tyre in the whole group. It is a little dangerous because you don't want to lose the Rally because your tyre is broken or something. So I think we made really good choices when it came to tyres and yeah we made it work and it's for sure not just me it's just a combination of all the people in the team and outside the team and everyone that supported me from the beginning. I wouldn't have been where I am without so many other people, so thanks to everyone and a long way to go I hope.