Sun, Sand and Steel

The Desert Storm…man and machine versus nature.-UTHRA GANESAN

The Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm is notorious for chastening even the most daring and experienced of drivers. The 12th edition of the event this year was no exception, writes Uthra Ganesan.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sand dunes and a few stray scraps of vegetation fighting a losing battle for survival, the sound of a vehicle from miles away can be heard. The Maruti Gypsy, revving its powerful, modified engine, appears with swirling clouds of dust behind it. There is just enough time for the reporters loitering around to scamper to safety as the vehicle zips past at over 100 kmph.

The Sam sand dunes near Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) are popular with tourists for overnight camps and bonfires. For one day in a year, though, about 50-odd drivers try to dominate the fickle terrain and dodgy weather in their SUVs and modified cars as part of the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm. Not everyone succeeds; the sand dunes and, in fact, the rally itself is notorious for chastening even the most daring and experienced of drivers. The 12th edition of the event this year was no exception.

Spread over five days and 2200 kilometres across the length and breadth of Rajasthan, including the cities of Bikaner and Jaisalmer, the Thar Desert, the outskirts of Sardarshahar, Sam and Pokharan, the rally this year saw over 230 participants and the first-ever night stage. Ironically, in a year that had the strongest possible field in a long time, the winner was all but decided halfway through the event as the main participants fell by the wayside.

The participants ranged from the adventurous amateurs in their fancy cars but without modifications to the hardened professionals such as Gaurav Gill (the Asia-Pacific Rally Champion), Suresh Rana (nine-time winner of the Raid de Himalaya) and Sunny Sidhu (former champion and a veteran of over 10 years in rallying).

“My family has given up on me coming to my senses and stopping rallying. The kind of adrenaline rush one gets going flat out on uneven terrains at high speeds is as addictive as a drug,” said Sidhu, who won the event this year.

The crashing out of most of his challengers early on helped Sidhu, but that did not take anything away from his effort. The rally driver from Chandigarh, in fact, prefers fighting it out with the best instead of pacing himself safely in quest of victory.

Organisational mess

Despite entering the 12th year, the event remains largely unorganised, posing problems for both the drivers and those covering it. Daily results were hard to come by, while the drivers complained of a lack of navigational support. The stewards, understaffed, were overworked and the organisers, Northern Motorsport and Maruti Suzuki, were often clueless on specific requests about the rally leaders and stages. On Day One, during the night stage through Sardarshahar, half the people did not know that there were floodlights installed at vantage points.

Gill pulled out in protest on the third day after being penalised for the same error twice, while Rana and Karamjit Singh of Malaysia suffered mechanical failures. There were unsubstantiated rumours of one of the drivers hitting a couple of locals and killing one of them on one of the stages.

Despite all the problems, the number of participants for the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm only keeps increasing. And many keep returning to the event each year, like the Gurgaon-based Sarika Sehrawat, one of the few women who participate in the ultra-competitive Xtreme category.

“It’s the high one gets that is responsible. In the desert, the rally route changes, depending on the wind and other conditions, between the start and finish of a particular stage. No two cars or motorbikes pass through the same route. Now imagine two editions of the rally. It is a different race altogether,” said the 54-year-old Austrian biker, Helmut Frauwellner, who is a self-professed rally junkie.

He was spot on — the vehicle carrying the media personnel was stuck in the sand for almost an hour at Sam as the changing wind direction had piled up sand where there had been none a couple of hours before.

Frauwellner finished second, behind India’s C. S. Santosh, who led from start to finish, in the two-wheeler segment. Both were making their debut in the rally this year. “It was tougher than I expected, and a great learning experience. Having Helmut around is like a daily lesson in the do’s and don’ts of rallying. Most importantly, it will help me a lot at the World Cross Country Rally Championship in Abu Dhabi,” said Santosh.

A scorching sun during the day (the rally also passes through Churu, recorded as the hottest place in India) and plummeting mercury levels in the evening means one has to take adequate precautions against falling prey to the conditions. The starts at unearthly hours — the day would begin anytime between 2 am and 5 am — and the barren landscape for miles challenge the mind and might of even the strongest.

For the villagers who happen to witness the rally, it is an exciting time. They cannot figure out why anyone would want to come to their backyard to speed in their cars, but are more than happy to make way for the speed kings.

A riot of colours

Moving from Jaisalmer to Bikaner on the penultimate day, one witnessed wild boars, deer and a variety of wildlife near Ghantiyali, close to Nachna, a strategic border post that has seen quite a few flare-ups with Pakistan. At the stop point on this stage, a startled hyena was scared off its domain by the cars and bikes.

Those accompanying the Desert Storm put the rare breaks they got, after the daily action had ended sooner than expected, to good use by exploring the cities and visiting the forts dotting the Rajasthan landscape. The riot of colours across the city, be it the local attire, the intricate carvings inside the forts or the household articles of daily use, highlights the beauty of the landscape.

As the dusty, battered vehicles rolled into Jaipur to mark the end of the rally, the high-fives among those who managed to last the distance and those who didn’t were an acknowledgment of the challenges they had faced. Sidhu won the title but for everyone who experienced these five days, the journey would last a lifetime.

THE ESSENCE OF DESERT STORM

♦ One of only two motorsport events in India and 12 worldwide listed on the off-road calendar of the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) and FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme).

♦ Total distance: 2200 km, covered over five legs in as many days.

♦ 54 teams in XTreme category.

♦ 41 teams across NDure and Xplore categories.

♦ 34 participants in moto and quad section.