Victory on four wheels at the Desert Storm was decided in a straightforward manner, but the victor on two…anything but.
Is there such a thing as a fat lady that sings in the Indian context? I guess so if you count one or two popular singers of classical music and if you are willing to be a little politically incorrect. India’s Dakar Rally hero will probably keep an ear trained for the refrain of a physically substantial female before thinking victory is in the bag after this year’s Maruti-Suzuki Desert Storm.
The week long cross-country rally was anything but straightforward for Hero Motosport’s CS Santosh. Two penalties, one of them imposed after the end of the very last stage, turned what looked to be certain victory into a highly unsatisfactory third for the Bengaluru rider. Rubbing salt into his metaphorical wound was the physical injury he suffered after crashing while trying to make up the time lost from the first penalty.
The total competitive distance of 700 kms was nothing compared to what Santosh had endured in a difficult Dakar Rally en route to 47th overall. But the experience left him clearly drained and it showed as he impatiently waited for what seemed like a never-ending prize distribution ceremony to conclude after the event ended.
The road to victory among the car class was far more straightforward, though.
FIFTH WIN FOR RANA
Suresh Rana and co-driver Ashwin Naik’s path to victory had one hiccup in contrast to CS Santosh’s bag of trouble. A late check-in early in the rally meant a 16-minute penalty was imposed on the lead Maruti-Suzuki driver. His ability to claw the time back was never in question, however, especially with little by way of competition once the Grand Vitaras – like the one he was driving – of Gaurav Chiripal, Sanjay Aggarwal and Harpreet Singh Bawa all hit trouble early in the event. Ultimately following the disqualification of a competitor for illegally using differential locks, Himanshu Arora and co-driver Chirag Thakur took second place overall.
At the end of the opening leg of the rally that took the competitors from Hanumangarh to Bikaner, the pair of Chiripal and co-driver Srikanth Gowda was trailing Rana by just 51 seconds with Aggarwal and co-driver Shivprakash E right behind him.
However, the Grand Vitaras at their disposal finally showed that they were not only past their marketability but also their mechanical ability in many ways. The car is long gone from the Indian market and rally competitors tend to go in one extreme or another in prepping the car. Either not enough power or too much power.
Aggarwal seemed to have found the right mix but then on the third leg hit the ground hard after a jump and ended up breaking his rear differential. It was left for others to pick up the pieces after what had seemed like the heavy-hitting Vitaras had bowed out.
The privately run – with some factory support – Isuzu D-Max V-Cross team of Saazid Singha and co-driver Parishrut Jinha took third place overall on their first attempt at the Desert Storm in the pick-up that has quickly become a favourite among off-road enthusiasts.
In the absence of Polaris, Isuzu seems set to become the next car manufacturer to wear a target on its back as far as the event sponsor and dominant manufacturer, Maruti-Suzuki is concerned. In fact, according to Raj Singh Rathore, he was notified of Polaris’ withdrawal just six days before the event kicked off. Aside from a change of heart about motorsport, it is believed the bad blood carried over from the controversial 2015 Raid de Himalaya did not sit well with Polaris.
Without an issue of being road legal, Singha comfortably (he claims to have had the air conditioning on!) drove the V-Cross to the podium with the hope of going further away from its stock specification in future events.
The car certainly seems made for an event like the Desert Storm as well as the upcoming Baja India but even by the admission of Singha, it needs some more support from the factory as well as a faster driver behind the wheel.
DRAMA IN THE MOTO CLASS
But now back to the events that really had people talking. The unlikely win by TVS Racing’s R Nataraj, followed by teammate Tanveer Abdul Wahid in the overall two-wheel class.
Although, even after taking into Santosh’s misfortunes, one must say that Nataraj is a thoroughly deserving winner. Especially after helping former TVS rider Santosh out in a difficult situation. While trying to make up a 15-minute penalty for allegedly not following correct stop-and-go procedures, Santosh was taking more chances than he would have liked while riding flat out. In doing so he pushed a bit too hard and fell in a section of a stage that had barbed wire fencing lining it. His left arm got entangled in it and it was Nataraj who stopped to help him.
With the penalty and the injury hanging over him Santosh had to stay on it to ride fast enough to make the time up even if the penalty that he described to be “stupid” was not overturned.
The rally was hardly the forgone conclusion many thought it would be with Santosh riding the same Hero-Speedbrain Rally 450 bike that he used in the Dakar.
On top of which Nataraj and Wahid were riding a TVS RTR 450 FX; a far lighter bike than the Hero-Speedbrain and easier to maneuver in twisty sections of the rally’s eleven stages.
With all of the rally’s competitive stages behind him, Santosh finally thought it was time to take it easy until in the final transport stage one of the Hero-Speedbrain crew members told autoX that debilitating pain from his injury led to a 30 minute delay in checking in. Santosh was not riding his bike on the transport sections, which was instead being towed by his crew, but even then the pain was too great for him to not stop and take a moment.
Hero Motosport had been trying to get the original 15 minute penalty overturned but autoX learned that Santosh himself turned down the offer as it would have only elevated him to second overall.
That meant that TVS Racing took a slightly unexpected 1-2 finish and even took the win in the Group B class.
Santosh, on the other hand, spent the evening before the prize distribution looking strained in the effort required to be civil and go through the motion of the champagne shower and the evening dinner. The fat lady had finally sung as a controversial Desert Storm finally came to an end, and she sang for Rana and Nataraj.