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Turn the calendar to 1994 and the start of Hari’s remarkable run with Jk Tyre Motorsport, of four national championships on the trot. “When we changed over to Esteems, Naren became the champion because there were a lot of car issues, Kari was no longer there [he died in 1995 in a microlight crash], we always had some car problems and breaking suspensions. And in those years there was a lot of rivalry between MRF and JK, and whenever we came first it was always protested. The thing is, all those years whenever we did not have any car problems we were at the top of the charts.” I ask Hari about his most formidable rival. “I think Leela. There was Naren and then Vikram but Leela was always able to fine-tune his car for every stage. He was a tuner so we knew what he went through. He was very perceptive and used to tune his car for literally every stage. Besides, his car was very quick. Because of my driving style I had a more reliable engine.”
I remember all the pictures of Hari’s bent cars, all the stories of Hari’s crashes. I ask if he was very hard on the car. “Not really hard, but the driving style, I would be longer through every gear, whereas people in the south are very technical. They would keep telling us to power shift, power shift, no lift off. And I’d be, I’m lifting off for every corner and still the car is on two wheels. What they meant was flat shift without lifting off the throttle. Spectators used to tell me they always knew when I was coming. I was always on the same rev band, no umm-haa-umm-haa, always same revs.” Hari’s style was flat out from the word go. “The first stage we were usually the cat among [the] pigeons. That was our USP. People would take time to settle in while we would be setting benchmark times right from the first stage.”
So what was Hari’s preferred terrain? “Mountains. The thing is MRF had way quicker cars and their speeds were lot more than ours. So, I preferred the mountains [where the driver could make more of a difference]. Nobody has won the Mountain Challenge when it was run as a championship event. The five times it was part of the championship, we won all five.”
Hari has seen the transition from Group N to Group A Gypsys, then Esteems and finally to the Group A Lancer that they drove in 2000. “Gypsy to Esteem was a big transition but it happened quite smoothly. But more important was the year we drove the Mitsubishi Lancer. The car was prepared by Brian Palmer from Malaysia. They were very forgiving cars. There was a big difference between the Esteem and Lancer. Though the Esteem had more top end speed, but cornering in the Lancer was incredibly composed, there was no need to worry at all.”
Hari’s last rally was the 1999 South India rally where he finished second under controversial circumstances. And then the motorsport governing body split, with rallying falling under the aegis of the MAI who banned Group A cars. The Lancer would not have been competitive under Group N regulations, especially against the City VTECs that arch-rivals MRF had prepared to Group N specs and JK withdrew from Indian rallying to focus on international rallying, tying up with Proton in Malaysia. Hari Singh won the inaugural Asia Zone championship with the Satria GTI. The next year MRF entered the AZC with the faster Honda Civics, controversy erupted in the Thailand rally over the gearboxes of the JK-backed Protons, and JK got fed up and pulled the plug on all rallying. “JK sent me to Germany to do a course on tyres, with [erstwhile partners] Continental tyres and then I started testing tyres, of course hoping one day they’ll come back [to rallying] but it didn’t happen,” says Hari.
It must have been a difficult decision. “Our personal belief is that amongst various verticals of motorsport available in our country, rallying has always had its own little following,” says Hardy. “The spirit of rallies was extremely energetic and unique. And we had some real good heroes who could play with technology really well. Till 1997 we were winning anything and everything that came our way. There were events where we went with five cars and all of them finished in the first five spots. One of the reasons for our success was our approach, which was highly professional. The driver was to fly in, sit in the car and only worry about performing unlike the previous years where they had to build the car, sort out logistics, everything. The system changed, accountability changed and money came into the sport.”
Speaking about the professionalism JK Tyre injected into rallying Hari adds, “You didn’t need to worry. If you needed drinking water or anything, everything was taken care of. We were one unit as a whole. We would all stay at the same hotel and there was this camaraderie which was missing in any other place. I think that was what made JK. We were open, like a family. “When Hardy came in, he wanted to bring in some professionalism into the team so he stopped our drinking. The results didn’t come for next 2-3 rallies, not because of the drinking part… so a new policy was formed. Win or lose, we just booze. Hardy said if we win, the party is on me. If we lose, the rally party still has to happen but you guys pay for it. 70–80 per cent of the time Hardy was paying for it.”
With the abrupt end to Hari’s rallying career — while at his peak one must add. At the 2003 India Rally, JK stepped in to support old friend Karamjit Singh’s bid to add the APRC title to his PWRC crown and even though they won the rally, they missed out on the championship by one point to MRF’s Armin Kremer. They exacted their revenge the next year though with Karamjit Singh, sporting JK Tyre stickers on his Proton Pert (a rebadged Mitsubishi Evo VIII), won the India Rally and the APRC title. Motorsport, much like politics, makes for strange bedfellows and at the same event, when Naren and Leela fell out with MRF, JK stepped in to support their privately entered Mitsubishi Evo VIII. That program accelerated into a full-fledged INRC program where Naren won the national championship in 2005 (with the Baleno) and 2006 (the first year of the Cedia) running JK Tyres.
It was in 2005 when Vikram injured himself in a rally, that JK gave his seat to Gaurav Gill, unearthing the best rally driver India has even seen. And it was in 2007 when Gill switched camps to MRF after an intense battle with JK teammate Naren for the championship, that JK pulled out of rallying. Only to return, again, supporting yours truly and the Slideways Industries rally team who were the first to prepare the Polo for Indian rallying. In fact, we brought Karamjit Singh back to India for the 2013 Rally of Maharashtra, to drive a JK Tyre-shod Polo for Slideways Industries that ran Gill and his Mahindra XUV500 very close. That program led to development starting on the first R2-spec Polo to take on the faster XUVs but then VW scaled back their plans for rallying to customer sport and JK again took a break. And now they’re set for a return to rallying in 2019. What a journey it has been right?
Missed part one? Find it here!
Stay tuned as JK Tyre Motorsport announces something big tomorrow!