C. S. Santosh: ‘Top 20 is not impossible’

C.S. Santosh returns from the 2017 Dakar Rally a happy man, despite an early hiccup that cost him precious time. The Bengaluru rider finished a respectable 47th (among the motorbikes), completing the rally for the second time in his career.

“It was the first real navigational challenge. We were going through a lot of camel-grass and bushes in the rivers. I was disoriented because there was so much dust flying everywhere."

C.S. Santosh returns from the 2017 Dakar Rally a happy man, despite an early hiccup that cost him precious time. The Bengaluru rider finished a respectable 47th (among the motorbikes), completing the rally for the second time in his career. “This year, I realised why the Dakar is what it is,” he said here on Wednesday. “To do well, you need to be in the top-40 and in the second week you can maybe end up in the 20s. That’s the kind of game I wanted to play this year. But on the third day, I lost a lot of time.”

This edition of the rally, which ran through Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, was widely acknowledged as being demanding even by Dakar standards. “Everything went sour for me on the third day,” Santosh recalled. “It was the first real navigational challenge. We were going through a lot of camel-grass and bushes in the rivers. I was disoriented because there was so much dust flying everywhere. There were people everywhere.

“I missed a waypoint (that all competitors are required to pass), and I got penalised an hour and 20 minutes. I thought the maximum penalty would be 20 minutes. So I assessed the risks and I felt it was better to lose 20 minutes and have clear air in front of me rather than go back to find the waypoint and pass all the slow guys again and face a lot of dust. I wish I’d gone back and got it.”

Santosh, who in 2015 became the first Indian to compete in the Dakar, had finished 36th on debut. Last year, he had to abandon the race in the fourth stage after his bike broke down. “This year was the best...it’s just that the results don’t show it,” the Hero Motorsports rider said. “I was light years ahead of the way I rode in 2015. I have the speed. I need to be consistent over the 13 days.”

Santosh admitted he had struggled through the hugely technical sections that the organisers of the Dakar rally have been steadily introducing, in an effort to slow the race down. “We were riding through camel-grass, through dry river beds, rocks...there were no tracks. There was no traction. I found all that terrain really difficult. I didn’t enjoy it; I need to work on the technical stuff,” he said.

The 33-year-old, who rode a 450 Rally Hero Speedbrain, felt he had to improve a great deal physically too. “I need to be a lot fitter and stronger,” he said. “I had the speed but when it became really technical, I didn’t have the endurance. On the third day, I had spent so much energy riding at 5-10kmph through the first 70km that when the stage became nice and open, I didn’t have anything left. I hit the wall, like marathon runners say.”

The 2017 Dakar represents a triumph for Hero Motorsports, both of whose riders finished, with Joaquim Rodrigues, Santosh’s team-mate, claiming 12th place. This year, Karnataka’s K.P. Aravind became the second Indian to compete in the Dakar, but the TVS Sherco rider crashed out in Stage 3. “The Dakar is so long and the stages are so difficult that if you hurt yourself early on...I knew that for him to last any longer would be a miracle,” Santosh said. “KP was very emotional when he saw that I’d finished. I told him, ‘Don’t be disappointed. It happened to me as well last year.’“

Santosh has his sights set on a top-20 finish at the Dakar soon. “Sam Sunderland won the Dakar after four years,” he said. “If I can get into the top 20 after four years, it’s like winning for me. It’s not impossible but it takes time to do it.”