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Vicky Chandhok – At the age of 61, a comeback into the world of rallying
Motorsport

Vicky Chandhok – At the age of 61, a comeback into the world of rallying

Hari Kudchadkar

Vicky Chandhok – At the age of 61, a comeback into the world of rallying

Why does an Indian Rally legend feel the need for a comeback into the Indian rally scene that he had gracefully exited back in 2000?

Better known as the former president of the FMSCI, Vicky Chandhok is a skilled rally driver with years of experience behind the wheel of a rally car. He has participated in, and won numerous rallies, with 358 trophies on the table and believe it or not, more to come. The enduring desire to compete and test himself brought him back to the rally track to compete in the 2018 INRC Rally of Chennai. R. Chandramouli was his co-driver for the South Indian Rally as opposed to Manoj Dalal who has been his co-driver for over 20 years. Manoj however did experience Vicky’s short shakedown with the Volkswagen Polo R2 at the Rally stage on the MMRT, Chennai.

The Comeback

For Vicky, it was an absolute challenge to figure out whether he can or cannot do an event like this at the age of 61. Although even at this age his fitness was still in top shape, he was rather skeptical on whether he would be able to compete and charge with young turks.

“Bugger, you haven’t lost your touch yet”

When the MMRT rally track was revamped, Vicky mentioned that he enjoyed driving on the new additions of the track. He also happened to test the Volkswagen Polo R2 rally car on the same track.

When Vicky drove the Volkswagen Polo R2 around the track just as a fun car, his age old co-driver Manoj Dalal was right there with him and Manoj casually said to him, “Bugger, you haven’t lost your touch yet”. This was exactly what triggered the comeback. Not to show the youngsters how it’s done but to challenge himself and find closure to his career. After Manoj had motivated him during their drive in the Polo R2, his mind had already said, “Let’s do this.” He had no idea what prompted this reaction.

“Rallying for me only died because of politics”

Vicky was excited and slightly intimidated only because he has never driven a proper rally car, by which he meant a proper FIA-spec rally car with a sequential gearbox, with the gear lever sticking close to the handbrakes, and everything built like a FIA R2 car, which was what thrilled him the most. Vicky was a torpedo in his time and with Manoj Dalal co-driving made them an unstoppable duo. The team used to be very competitive in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. After which in the year 2000, the last two rallies that Vicky and co-driver Hari Singh did as a part of the South Indian national rally, they won by a whopping 17 seconds.

Vicky also mentioned that he never really signed off from his rallying career. It was all down to the major brawl between the FMSCI and the MAI as to who would have the final say in hosting events in the country. “Rallying for me only died because of politics,” he said. Because of which he had gracefully exited the rally scene and never got a closure to his career; it was as if he left it halfway, halfheartedly. But when the opportunity arose, there was no holding back.

“The first thought that comes to your mind was if i roll this thing, will I be able to crawl out of it?”

After his decision, Vicky was skeptical and fearful of whether he would be able to take up this challenge and if it was the right decision to say yes to Volkswagen and get back into rallying. It escalated to a level where he wanted to call Volkswagen and tell them that he had made a mistake and wants to retract his words. When he got into the rally car and put on his crash helmet, he was bewildered. He was struggling with claustrophobia, but only because he hadn’t been in a rally car for a long time and that too a small hatch like the Polo R2. “The first thought that comes to your mind was if I roll this thing..will I be able to crawl out of it?” he said. This was because the Polo R2 is small car and the roll cage is quite tight. It would make anyone wonder which corner to get out of if it rolls over or crashes. It would take Vicky some time to get accustomed to the space inside the car and also evaluate possible exits in case the car landed on its roof.

The Learning Curve

The VW Polo R2 that Vicky will pilot is completely different from his Group A Lancer that he drove in the past. Vicky mentioned that it took him time to get used to the car and also to get into grips of maneuvering it around the track as fast as possible. After a few laps in the Polo R2, shockingly or surprisingly, Vicky never got about driving the car as hard as he should have. The first few laps only helped him get into the groove and shed seconds off their (Vicky and R. Chandramouli) previous laps. They were using a lot more steering input rather than very little input which was what was needed in these cars, just toss it sideways, go flat on the throttle and let the limited slip differential drag you through the corner.

Vicky was still getting a hang of using the sequential gearbox and the limited slip differential to drag the car through corners on his first time around the track, he was still using a considerably higher amount of steering input than required. Vicky had only driven the car 20 minutes before the actual South Indian rally.

Vicky Chandhok’s Group ‘A’ Lancer

The Group A Lancer that Vicky piloted was also a properly built rally car, it had the limited slip differential and a rally specification gearbox. The gearbox had been built with tweaked gear ratios and adapted well with the rest of the rally setup. The Lancer’s longer wheelbase, as opposed to the Polo, gave it that much better stability in high-speed bumpy dirt stages. The rally stages of this age being tight and dug up, he felt that the Polo R2 was being driven properly and adapted well with the course. Somehow he always compared the older rally days to today’s rally stages only in the sense that rallying today has become a more organized and supervised motorsport.

What it’s made of: The Volkswagen Polo R2 rally car

The Polo R2 Rally car has a 1.6-litre MPI motor that churns out more than 130bhp of power; it is mated to a sequential gearbox and a limited slip differential to put the power down to the wheels. It has an FIA Spec roll cage, stripped out interiors, racing bucket seats, an OMP Rally spec steering wheel, a six-point race harness, and a handbrake lever extended to be next to the gear lever for ease of usage. All these specs meant it was built solely to dart through the grueling rally stages.

“The drivers have chosen consistency over, exceptional performance”

To get around a corner in rallying, you need to have big balls particularly titanium ones, enough to flick the car with the most minimum steering input, pin the throttle to the floor and go flat out and exit the corner. The buck does not stop there, once you exit the corner, Viola! There’s another corner, sharper and meaner than the one you just exited, so always be prepared for what comes ahead.

Vicky’s views on the current lot of rally talent

Vicky mentioned the likes of Dean Mascarehnas, who was a Toyota Etios Racing champ in 2014 and INRC runner-up in 2015, and has garnered close to 20 wins in national rally events. Vicky used to watch the rallies from afar, when Dean made his first appearance at the Chikmaglur rally. He acknowledged that he knew all the other drivers quite well because of constant interaction with them. After the South Indian rally Vicky evaluated a forming trend, “The drivers have chosen consistency over, exceptional performance,” he remarks. The drivers these days stick to their comfort zone and do not go all guns blazing; it could be because of pressures from sponsors, the pressure of investment and pressure from manufacturers. But Vicky feels that the young drivers today (young turks as her refers to them as) have plenty more talent and skill under their belt that goes unutilized.

The Rally stages:  Then and now

Vicky mentioned that they used to host rally stages that went on for 200 – 300km as opposed to the mere 70 – 80km of rally stages today. The rally stages measuring 70 odd km came into being during Vicky’s presidency at the FMSCI, but this was only as a request from competitors. The distance was further changed to a 100kms, which to him was still a joke. Vicky felt that they should make rally stages at least 150km long. The older long-distance rallies went on for 600 odd km in total distance and 150 odd km for every stage, which resembles today’s Raid de Himalayas and the Desert Storm which are cross-country rallies. He is in the favor of having longer distance stages to make it more competitive and require better driver endurance and skill.

“Why do we have to follow a World Rally Championship format when we are nowhere near World Rally Championship”

Vicky talks about the number of insensible restrictions in the rally stages today, and the conflict of interest between promoters and organisers. He says that the promoters should only do their part and raise the budget, rather than posing as the organisers.

The closure

Vicky exclaimed and said that the addiction to motorsport never goes away especially for a former rally driver, but he felt that he may not do more events like these as he wants to spend more time working with the management of the sport as he has for the last two decades and also spend time on himself. He constantly wants to be able to improve the sport in every manner possible. Although there are certain criteria and restrictions that are needed, there are some that are just too odd.

Words by: Hari Kudchadkar