The Dakar Rally: the most punishing, yet fascinating

“It is the epitome of high endurance rallying and is far removed from other events, as at the Dakar a competitor is exposed to extreme conditions — be it the weather, the terrain or the challenges on the go,” says Aravind K. P. in a chat with Sportstar.

For Aravind K.P., taking part in the Dakar rally was "a larger-than-life-experience, dream come true".   -  Special Arrangement

The Dakar Rally and controversy have been like the horse and the cart. And ever since Mark Thatcher, son of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, went missing for close to a week along with his navigator and mechanic in 1982 (they were, in fact, stranded on the eastern sector of the course, while the organisers went west in search of them), the rally-raid has witnessed some chillingly turbulent times every other year.

Horrific accidents leading to deaths of both competitors and unwary spectators, remonstrating residents along the route who saw the event as a devilish display of power and wealth that took the lives of humans and livestock, protests by environmentalists who contended that the carbon emissions during the event rose to perilous levels, threats by Al-Qaeda against the event… . The world’s most gruelling but fascinating rally-raid, organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) — which also stages the Tour de France — has seen it all.

One of the defining moments of the Dakar came in 2009 when terrorists threatened to attack the event, which forced the ASO to call off the rally-raid. Eventually, in 2009, the event was held in South America, and it has stayed in the region since then.

The event’s appeal, however, continues to endure, attracting competitors from all over the world. (This year, the rally-raid, which was held in January, had over 550 participants in the four categories — cars, bikes, quads and trucks.) And you don’t come across people anymore griping over French singer, songwriter and actor Renaud Pierre Manuel Sechan’s derisive song about the rally (‘500 Arseholes at the Starting Line’).

The Dakar is unique for the diverse terrains it navigates through, and the fact that the weather conditions change considerably along the route adds to the rally’s allure.

The Dakar is unique for the diverse terrains it navigates through, and the fact that the weather conditions change considerably along the route adds to the rally's allure.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“The magnitude of the Dakar Rally is more than any other rally. It is a 12-day rally where you begin riding early morning and it goes on till late evening. The varied terrains and weather conditions is what makes it very gruesome. This year, the rally started from Paraguay and went into the tropical climes of Argentina before we got into Bolivia. Thereafter the rally got over in Argentina via Salta,” says Aravind K. P. of TVS Racing, who took part in the off-road endurance event for the first time this year.

“Each stage at the Dakar is bigger than the ones in any international rally-raid, and in one stage you could be crossing extreme weather and terrains. The route, weather and your reaction to the complete set-up is unpredictable and hence, it is considered to be the toughest rally in the world. However, some of the places along the rally route are beautiful and very exotic. The competitors cross the picturesque northern Argentina via Resistencia and Tucuman. The rally also traverses through the fabulous landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni highlands around La Paz,” he says.

No wonder the Dakar is reckoned as the most punishing, yet fascinating rally in the world. According to Aravind, it is the epitome of high endurance rallying and is far removed from other events, as at the Dakar a competitor is exposed to extreme conditions — be it the weather, the terrain or the challenges on the go.

“To be able to survive through the Dakar, it is important for a driver/rider to build a relation with his machine; it is critical so as to overcome the challenges that the Dakar throws at you. The rider/driver and the machine have to go through gruelling weather and tough conditions through 12 days.

“The previous Dakar rallies were more about speed and endurance, but this one is more of navigation as there is water and camel grass to counter and hence it is extremely crucial to be in sync with your machine. For the rider, it is as much a mental test as it is physical, with navigation being the essence,” avers Aravind.

For the TVS Racing rider, competing in the Dakar Rally for the first time was what he calls “A larger-than-life experience; a dream come true”.

“I had been waiting to ride at the Dakar and I thank TVS Racing for giving me an opportunity to be a part of the Sherco-TVS Factory Rally Team. The Dakar lived up to its image of being the most gruelling rally in the world. Being a rookie, I was definitely nervous, but excited to represent my team and my country. But my training and the encouragement from the team helped a lot. Though short-lived, it was definitely a great learning experience. What we (the team) learnt at the Dakar will be helpful for us in preparing for the future,” Aravind explains.

For the record, Aravind failed to progress beyond the third stage, as he fractured his wrist in a fall. Another Indian rider C. S. Santosh of Hero Speedbrain finished 47th. However, for the two Indian teams, Sherco-TVS and Hero Speedbrain, it was a rally to cherish. Joaquim Rodrigues of Hero Speedbrain finished 12th in the motorcycle section, while Juan Pedrero Garcia of Sherco-TVS came in 13th. Another Sherco-TVS rider, Adrien Metge, completed the rally in 23rd position.

Though Aravind was forced to drop out of the rally early, he stayed on to help his team and the mechanics. And talking of his premature exit from the event, Aravind says, “I suffered the first fall in the prologue stage. I went hot into a corner and a slower rider came in my way. I braked hard and fell, hurting my wrist. This aggravated an old fracture on the wrist that I had suffered eight years ago. I then realised a bit later that I had two soft bone injuries as well. It’s an occupational hazard; we cannot do much about it.”

In hindsight, does Aravind think he could have performed better at the Dakar than what he actually did with superior training?

“It is disappointing considering I could not continue my adventure further but I opted to stay and support the team as they finished the rally. I wanted to experience the rally as a spectator because that as well will help me prepare better for my next attempt,” he explains.

“The Dakar can spring a surprise to even the most experienced of riders, so you never know what might hit you. You just need to prepare well and that doesn’t come in a day. It takes years of training. TVS Racing is my foundation and pillar of strength. The entire team has stood by my dreams all through the years. Their expert training and international exposure were critical in honing my skills.

Aravind... "What we (the team) learnt at the Dakar will be helpful for us in preparing for the future."   -  Special Arrangement

“My team supported me through the entire duration of my preparation with the best of facilities and training. I was fortunate to have a team manager (David Casteu) who has been on the podium before. I took his guidance and did what the team asked me to,” Aravind says.

An event such as the Dakar, with all its thrills and spills, can be overwhelming for a competitor from India where motorsport is not in the nation’s DNA. So when a driver/rider from India steps onto a terrain as mysterious as in the Dakar, his inadequacies get overblown. In a manner of speaking, he is simply straitjacketed. Aravind, in a way, subscribes to the view.

“The Dakar is like no other; and riders who have participated here previously are at an obvious advantage.

If someone has been competing in just the Indian championship, it will just not be enough and he will definitely have no clue as to how the Dakar is going to be. The ideal situation would be to ride in events abroad to prepare for the Dakar. Raid De Himalayas has similar situations to counter — but again, it isn’t closer to what the Dakar is,” he says.

“The Dakar is anyway unpredictable, but as a rider and a team, it is crucial to prepare to the best of your abilities. It is crucial to prepare yourself, push yourself and know when to conserve strength and when to give it all. I believe if you are in the right team, the handicaps can turn into opportunities,” Aravind adds. And there is always the comparison with the competitors from Europe and other parts of the world where motorsport is something like a way of life. So when compared to these people where do we Indians lag?

“It’s an expensive sport which also needs extensive training. The interest for motorsport has grown in India from the time I started my career. However, it is still less when compared to other sports and so it is really tough to keep yourself motivated. I am glad that established corporate houses like TVS Motor Company through its team TVS Racing is giving opportunities to budding talent in this area and is providing extensive training and international exposure to the riders,” says Aravind.

There were just two competitors from India in the Dakar Rally this year, which isn’t all that bad considering the kind of money involved in participating in an event as humongous as this. But Aravind believes we could see many more Indians at the starting line of the Dakar in the near future. “The love for this sport is catching up and there are people who are actually allowing their kids to pursue their passion. The scenario is gradually changing with the FMSCI (Federation of Motor Sports Clubs in India) taking the initiatives to conduct motorsports in a fair, orderly and disciplined manner and constructing international tracks.

“We need support from manufacturers to be able to get more Indian participants at the Dakar. I am happy to be a part of the TVS factory team as they were the first Indian manufacturers to participate in the Dakar. They encourage the budding talent and help them with the best possible training and guidance. Similarly, we need support from other manufacturers to make our riders more competitive at the Dakar. Support from the Government for motorsport would also encourage budding racers to pursue their dream and who knows in a couple of years you might have a whole contingent of riders from India participate at the Dakar,” he says, ending the chat on an optimistic note.