5 left into 4 right commit over crest.” Grab third on exit of the left. Accelerator pinned to the bulkhead. Left foot hovering over the brake, just in case. A fleeting moment of indecision. Should I? Shouldn’t I? From behind the wheel all I see is the top of the crest. The notes say there’s a 4 right over the crest — that’s a second gear corner — but it’s a blind corner and if I get it wrong, or if my notes were wrong, I’ll be down the mountain. But this is also where we make time: Hug the inside, set the car up to kiss the outside just as we rise to the crest and she’ll fly over the crest completely cutting out the corner, getting a bit out of shape over the grass, joining tarmac and flat-out to the next corner. Nikhil says this is where we make up a s***load of time. He doesn’t say, if we pussyfoot we lose a s***load of time.
So I stay pinned. Eyeballs wide open in raw fear. My god, this is it. Let’s do it. Let’s jump. Let’s get some serious air.
Nothing prepares you for the first time you jump a rally car.
No amount of driving, track days, testing everything there is to be tested — including Ferraris, Lambos, Porsches, even the Veyron — many hours scaring myself silly in the saddles of superbikes, some big shunts; nothing prepares you for the first time you take off over a blind crest. For that split second, time seems to slow down. You savour the moment, relish it, there’s a silence, all that angry rally-car violence fades into the background, a smile, a strange calm, this is what it’s all about, why all that stress and effort was worth it.
You land: Softly, no scrunching of the bumper, accelerator floored, “80 8 right over crest,” line it up for the next jump.
This is the story of my rallying debut.
Maybe it’s my wife pointing out that I always tune off during F1 and watch YouTube rally clips instead. Or it’s the Raid de Himalaya trophy I won years ago that’s been giving me the stare every time I chuck my keys into it. Whatever. I realise that if I don’t do it now I’ll never be able to. It’s settled: I’m going rallying.
First the car. Rookies usually start with the carburetted Rally Star Cup Esteems (no matter how hard you drive them, they look slow) or Gypsys (impossible to drive, shake all your teeth out). Neither look very safe to crash in and I wasn’t keen on the (faster) fuel-injected Esteems and (much faster) Baleno — who wants to read about a car that stopped being sold years ago?
In any case, one of the reasons why I want to rally is so I can talk about it. And telling my colleagues abroad I’m rallying an 85-horsepower 1990s Suzuki Swift is quite pathetic. No, the only car to do it with is the Mitsubishi Cedia Sports (“yeah mate, I’m rallying a Mitsubishi”).
Next: Off to Red Rooster Performance in Bangalore, to prep my rally car. N. Leelakrishnan (“Leela” to friends) is the best tuner in the business; everybody swears by his cars: Set-up, reliability, speed, handling, everything.
Since I was an absolute rookie on a very tight budget, instead of the Group N+ class, we decided to run in the new Group N 2000cc class that doesn’t permit any (expensive) engine mods except for intakes, exhaust and a racing ECU. Rally-prepping a Group N Cedia costs around Rs. 2.5 lakh. And it’s a strong car so unless I have a big shunt, nothing will break or fail.
The other big expense in a rally programme is the equipment: Seats, harness, racing suits, helmets, intercom, etc. These cost almost as much as preparing a rally car itself. Our old friends at Methods Marketing stepped forward to supply us with the best Sparco gear. (Check out my flashy suit and red boots!). We also got Sidvin India and TSI Racing (the team that took Naren Kumar and Gaurav Gill to the Production World Rally Championship) to support our team.
Finally, the co-driver. I cannot begin to tell you how important a co-driver is: He makes one mistake, misses one call, and at best it will be the end of our rally. (If we go down the mountain, the end of our season. Or our necks.) You simply have to connect with him: For a week every month you spend every waking hour together; share a room, share a loo, share a car, share every meal. He’s your second wife. And Nikhil Pai is more meticulous and more organised than my wife.
Nikhil is hugely experienced, having co-driven for Vikram Mathias and, most recently, winning the 1400cc championship with Vikram Devadasen. His experience means I only have to concentrate on the driving; everything else (including a million forms) he takes care of.
Though the first round was postponed from May to June, it wasn’t enough. The only test I had was for a few hours, on dirt (for a tarmac rally!), in Karna Kadur’s old car. Zero testing in my own car. Not the best way to go into your first rally, which just happens to be the fastest, most unforgiving one on the calendar.
Nashik. Thursday. June 24
Up at 3:30 a.m. Nikhil sips his green tea. Off at 4:30 a.m. to recce the stages. This is the most important part of a rally. A driver’s pace doesn’t depend solely on his wheelsmanship but also on how good his notes are and, by extension, how good his co-driver is. Fortunately, Nikhil has Vikram Devadasen’s notes from last year. All we do is change his numbering system to mine (10 for the fastest corner, 6 for 45 degrees, 3 for 90 degrees, 1 for slowest) and make changes to suit my style.
We are back at the hotel by lunch. At the workshop, I find my car had failed scrutiny due to a lower arm issue. It finally gets ready and passes scrutiny minutes before the ceremonial start. I’m not jubilant: The rally is tomorrow and I haven’t driven the car yet, the suspension hasn’t been set up, the race ECU hasn’t been fitted, the tyres aren’t sorted and my suits, helmets and intercom are still stuck at customs in Bangalore. I consider packing up and driving back to Pune. Except the Cedia I’ve arrived in is immobile, as its crank position sensor has been fitted in my rally car. The Big Day
Up at 4:30 a.m., check my phone and heave a huge sigh of relief. Our kit is here. And the intercom, without which I wouldn’t be able to hear Nikhil’s calls and our pace would have been hopeless.
It’s like Christmas, unwrapping our suits, helmets, trying everything on (and finding Nikhil’s suit is three sizes too big). Dressed head-to-toe in shiny new kit (to balance it out I’m wearing frayed old boxers) we march to the Gateway Hotel to pick up the car and head for our first stage.
The transport section is the first time I drive my rally car, with the suspension properly set up and — another huge sigh of relief — Yokohama’s super sticky tarmac rally rubber. Nikhil says the car feels quicker — maybe to psyche me up — but I know there’s no change in performance, meaning it’s still running the stock ECU. At least I’m used to the feel of the brakes with the booster disconnected. (Pump the brakes quickly in succession and the servo runs out of vacuum and the pedal goes hard; that’s why the servo is disconnected. Also, non-assisted brakes have more feel and don’t lock as easily.) I also try and see how much grip there is and the car’s attitude in corners, until Nikhil tells me to ease off and not scrub the tyres.
Into tyre service and then, Stage One. I’m trembling, shaking like a leaf. I recollect the prayers I learned as a child, repeat them a million times. Nothing like a bit of fear — make that lots of fear — to remind you of god. Leela’s words play in my head, “Bugger, finish your first three rallies.” One last tug at the belts. Another prayer.
5. 4. 3. 2. 1! My first rally stage begins. Early Riser 6 in the morning, time for recce
I’ve always suffered from a short attention span, but I try my damnedest to concentrate: On the road, on Nikhil’s pace notes, on driving as hard as I can (don’t want to look stupid) but within my limits (stupider to crash).
The car is brilliant. It’s the first time I’m driving it in anger, but she responds beautifully. The DMS suspension is a thing of wonder; the harder you drive the better it works. All the small bumps and crests are taken flat-out. Leela has set up the suspension to be a little forgiving, to have some amount of roll so I don’t scare myself or crash the car, and it works beautifully for me. There is virtually no understeer, the nose tucks in with fantastic immediacy, I feel the tail coming around to help the car turn better. There’s a lot of feedback, and I gain in confidence, brake deeper into corners, get on the gas earlier. The grip from the rally rubber is just phenomenal. Of course I keep a lot in reserve as even a small off means a big accident; at times I brake too early and have to accelerate again to get to the corner.
A few kays in, on a culvert marked as double caution, we pass a Red Rooster car on its roof. The fear returns. I slap it out. Another few kays and Chetan’s car is parked on the side. That means I’ve already made up a position. In a way I’m happy, I move up automatically. But then I wanted to benchmark my times on Chetan’s so I’m not so happy either. What the hell am I thinking? Concentrate! I almost understeer off the road (and cliff) but somehow manage to keep it in check.
12.33 kilometres. 9 minutes 37.1 seconds. Brakes smoking so much the time control marshal reaches for the fire extinguisher. I’m desperate to see how I’ve done with respect to the others: 16.9 seconds behind G.S. Joshy in the Ovion car, but he’s one of the fastest around, a former 1400cc champion. 20.1 seconds behind S. Sujay, former 1400cc champion, reigning 1600cc champion; so that’s to be expected. But I’m quicker than all the Esteems and Balenos. And the Red Rooster car on its roof is my team-mate Karna’s, so I’m up to third in my class. Whoopee! Nikhil looks at me with astonishment. Calls me a rock star. I’m rather chuffed myself.
The second stage we’re 13.6 seconds slower than Joshy, but that’s a smaller 7.69 km stage. I thought I took it a little easy, Nikhil says I drove even better.
In the transport to the third stage, something goes wrong. The steering suddenly loses power assistance. I can’t believe things are falling apart already. And the third stage is the longest stage, 16.64 km, the trickiest, the stage where the rally is won or lost.
It’s the most difficult 16 kilometres I’ve driven in my life. I drive as fast as I possibly can, wrestling with the steering. To make matters worse, there are patches of slush. Slush is a terrible thing. Hit it and you have no control; the car goes where the slush wants it to go. The first patch scares me. Arjun Balu is gesturing for us to slow down on the second patch. He’s gone off and his car is precariously positioned on the precipice. It throws my concentration off. On the third patch I have the biggest moment of the rally. The car slides uncontrollably towards a ditch and gets some traction millimetres from the edge. Totally freaks me out. Coming on to a culvert, the spectator point, I lose it, am completely crossed up, tail inches from the stones, but manage to catch it and push on. Nail the series of jumps, finish the stage.
As expected, I lose a massive amount of time. Rahul’s Baleno is ahead of me. Even Amarinder Brar’s Gypsy is faster. I don’t realise it in the stage, probably all the adrenaline and stuff, but the steering is impossibly heavy. Can’t fling the car around, can’t set it up for the corners. The 25 km transport to the service stage has my arms groaning, my three-layer suit is soaked completely through with sweat. Nikhil says not to worry, Leela will sort the car out in service, but I’m gutted.
Of course Leela sorts it out; it was just a broken power steering belt. The RRP boys have a look around, and send me on my way. Everything else is perfect. Their faces are a little long though: Naren’s had problems all throughout and Gill in the leading MRF car has posted some unbelievable times; apparently the new Tein suspension isn’t working as well as it should and they aren’t pleased with themselves.
I’m pleased to see I’m still third in my class. It unconsciously switches me into safe mode — just maintain pace and go home with a trophy — and on the second running of the first stage I post a terrible time, half a minute slower than my first run. Everybody is a little slower — maybe the heat, maybe tyres losing grip, cars becoming slower — but I’m very slow. Pull up my socks on the next stage, post a quicker time than my previous effort. And then go all out and attack the final stage. Give it everything, push hard. The slush has more or less dried up. Push so hard that I have a small spin on the gravel thrown up on the road by the faster N+ Cedias. It’s a harmless half spin, but I lose a good 15-20 seconds. Keep pushing, absolutely nail the jumps, get even more air: 45 seconds quicker than the earlier run. If not for the spin it’d be a full minute quicker. Of course the Ovion cars are still ahead, but I keep the Balenos and Esteems behind.
Go into final service. The right rear lower arm bent; the RRP boys straighten it out, put on a set of fresh Yokos and head back to Nashik, a long 90 km transport.
End of day one. Third in Group N 2000cc class. Eighth overall. I’ve proved to myself that I can drive a rally car fast; haven’t turned to mud the reputation built over all these years. Happy Birthday!
Thanks to Facebook, everybody wishes me a happy birthday in the morning. I’m particularly happy. Everybody thinks I’ve done a mighty fine job. Walk up to Rahul to discuss his strategy for the day. He’s going to be pushing hard in the first two stages to stay ahead of the Esteems. Which means I’ll have to push hard to stay ahead of him. No cakewalk.
First stage. 21 seconds slower than my first time; I must have been possessed when I put in that time. But the gap to the Ovions is not as big. Check times with Rahul’s Baleno: I’m comfortably quicker. Next stage: Quicker again. One more to go. Ease off? Push? I’ve read about drivers taking it easy and losing concentration and crashing. Lacking any experience of such things, I push. And enjoy, really enjoy, the stage. Enjoy driving as hard as I can. I’m calm and there aren’t a million thoughts cluttering my head, I concentrate better, drive even more to the notes (the confidence to drive completely to the notes, to completely trust it, will take a few rallies to develop). End of the stage. I post 14 minutes 1 second, the quickest I’ve done this stage, 35 seconds quicker than my last run. I haven’t scared myself, and have gone properly fast. I felt myself in the air for much longer, but otherwise the car is in perfect nick. And I’m ecstatic. The rally is as good as over, only the Super Special Stage to go Sunday. I’m 32 and I’m on the podium of my debut rally.
Best birthday ever!Finish Line
I was too calm, going into the SSS (super special stage). Nikhil keeps telling me to focus. All I can think of is climbing on to that podium. And I cock up. “3 right into 3 left.” I only heard “3 left.” Have to reverse in front of a million spectators. In front of my wife, who has come to see me drive. They say you can never win a rally in the SSS, but you can lose it. Fortunately I don’t lose anything but some pride.
On the podium. And on top of the world! Strutting around in my suit, wearing the now-frayed Overdrive cap I wore when I took my Raid de Himalaya trophy. Climb up on to our car. Get a nice big trophy. Only the class winners get to spray the champagne, so I look on as Joshy sprays us, savour a glug of warm champagne. It’s all been totally worth it.
The writer is Editor, Overdrive. A longer version of this article appears in the magazine’s August edition and on overdrive.in.
(This article is excerpted from the latest Forbes India 27 August, 2010 issue which is now available at news stands and book stores. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com)