More than 470 km of navigating craggy riverbeds, manoeuvring narrow tea estates, braving the jungles of North Bengal, and muscling through the foothills of the Himalayas — these were the challenges for the competitors of Himalayan Drive 8, a three-day off-road rally.
Three months before the rally, organised by JK Tyre, one man was on the trail, racking his brains, his keen and experienced eyes mapping the surroundings, charting the course. What Suchandan Das did on this recce would set the stage for competitors in the event, which served as the final of the Indian National Regulatory Run Championship (INRRC) 2021.
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For Das, the COC (clerk of the course) of HD 8 and a Director of rally-organiser Just Sportz, the task of planning the route was an enjoyable one because of his undaunting passion for motorsports. However, by his own admission, it was also tedious because he is a perfectionist and found it difficult to delegate responsibilities.
How did the rally work
Now in its 8th edition, the Himalayan Drive, popularly referred to as HD in the motorsports world, is a Regulatory Run conducted in the Time, Speed and Distance (TSD) format under the guidelines prescribed by the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI).
Unlike in a race, where speed is of paramount importance and normally the participant to cross the finish line first is declared the winner; a Regulatory Run based on a TSD format requires a team to maintain a perfect harmony between speed, time and distance.
Each team comprising a driver and a co-driver (also referred as a navigator) was given a roadbook called the Tulip, which was the Bible for the competitors. This roadbook guided the teams through the challenging terrain of riverbeds, jungles and mountains. It contained the route, total distance of the leg, the intermediate distance between two route markings, prescribed speed and various cautions. There are several Time Controls (TC) spread across the course of the route. These TCs are surprise checkpoints manned by a team of marshalls where the time of arrival at these checkpoints are recorded in the timesheet by the marshall and shared with the participants. This information helps the team calculate whether they are on time or running ahead / behind schedule.
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If the teams arrive late at a particular TC, then they will be slapped with a one-point penalty for each second of late arrival. However, if the team hits the TC early, then they will be imposed a three-second penalty for each second of early arrival.
COC Suchandan Das remarked that it is virtually impossible to finish the rally with a zero penalty because it is an off-road rally and competitors are bound to arrive at TC early or late.
Being in harmony with nature
In a rally where nature and its components played an important role, Suchandan said every step required being in tandem with nature and not challenging it or taking it for granted.
“Being a COC for rallies like these requires anticipation. You have to be prepared for any situation and make spur of the moment decisions. You want to make it challenging for the competitors but you have to factor in the unpredictability of Mother Nature. I remember an incident from 2018 in the jungles of Gorumara (a national park in the Dooars region of North Bengal). We had already flagged off three cars. Just when we were about to flag off the fourth one, we saw the first three cars return because the route was blocked by a herd of elephants, which were extra aggressive because there was a newborn in the group,” said Das.
In such situations, it is the COC who has to decide the next course of action and in that case, Suchandan had to restart the race and give a fresh official time for the day.
Suchandan spoke about another incident during the 2017 Himalayan Drive when the rally covered parts of India and Bhutan.
“We had a route that passed through a tea garden leading to Phuentsholing (a border town in southern Bhutan). We had got access to that. There is a particular place in that garden where a canal had been made. However, the manager of the garden warned us that while the canal had a meek waterflow of just six inches, a healthy amount of rain can make the water level rise to up to 10 feet in a flash. So in cases like this, you don't take the course. Or if you take it, you keep a contingency plan.”
The fun of exploration
Charting an entire route for a three-day off route rally is no easy task. It requires extensive recce and ensuring that a balance between difficulty and safety is maintained. Das, who had started with the initial work three months before HD 8, says he does not approach the process in just a technical way, which he finds mundane.
“The best part about drawing the route is the exploration. Since I visit the places and draw the route in real-time, I tend to discover a lot of places, some I wouldn’t bother to go to if I was just a tourist. Google Maps does help but it is a lot of instinct as well. Ideally, I like to go for three recces but for HD 8, we were choked for time so I could only go twice. During the course of the race, there were errors in the roadbook, which I had to amend but then, errors are a part of the game.”
It is anyone’s rally
In TSD rallies there aren't any restrictions on the type of cars competitors can use. HD 8 saw an array of cars. From Mahindra Thars to a Hyundai i10, the rally had it all. Being the COC, how does Suchandan ensure that someone with an expensive off-roader car does not always enjoy an undue advantage over a simple hatchback? He says that everything boils down to making the route and incorporating nature in such a way that it benefits everyone.
“One might think that a team with say, a top-notch Mercedes off-roader will muscle over someone with a Santro and have a clear shot at maintaining a better time but that isn’t the case. On a long stretch of open space or challenging terrains, off-roaders might have an edge over other vehicles but what happens when they arrive at a sharp bend or have to manoeuvre through a narrow space? They have to reverse a couple of times and be extra careful. That is where they lose time and earn penalties. So this again boils down to taking the help of nature in maintaining a balance and making the race inclusive.”
The course, drawn out by Suchandan, left most drivers satisfied. “Despite winning this rally five times, I still find it challenging every time in a new way. The tougher the rally, the more the adrenaline rush,” said Ajgar Ali, winner of Himalayan Drive 8 and five-time champion of Himalayan Drive. “ I was a bit worried about how the route would be. Since I had a sedan, too many boulder sections might have been an issue, but all things said and done, this is the car that has helped me win four times. So, I drove with my fullest confidence.”
Sheena Sabharwal, who won the INRCC Ladies Cup, also enjoyed the course. “The best part and the most difficult part of the race were almost the same. The riverbeds we navigated were new to us. We haven’t ever taken on something like this. That was really interesting. The experience of manoeuvring through the terrain was different but overall, it was a great experience,” she said.
An ever-present figure throughout the three-day rally, Suchandan was well aware of being the captain of the ship, proudly donning the badge of COC. That, however, came at a cost. He was absent for most social gatherings after each day because he needed to be on full alert for the next day. For the captain, revelry wasn’t an option and till the very last day in Darjeeling, he was busy mediating protests and trying to find solutions.
But ask him, his sheer love for the sport was the driving force behind his ability to grind through the three days and apart from a few minor hiccups, which are part and parcel of the sport, he would have it no other way.