Plotting the storm: The story behind India Baja 2017

“Not one recce,” Raj Kapoor, one of the architects of India Baja 2017, assures us. “We do something like 25 recces. If the route is 650 km long then every metre is mapped. Each driver has a route map which tells him metre-by-metre what to expect… where is the turn, what is the marker on the left, are there special features like trees around the region… Each and everything on the 650 km stretch is marked graphically and if you take the scroll notebook for the bike riders and open it, it will go close to about 50 feet.”

The story of India Baja, the nation’s first Dakar Challenge (the winner in the two-wheeler segment here automatically qualifies for the 2018 Dakar Rally in Peru), is about meticulous planning, years of fine-tuning and the sheer will of a bunch of enthusiasts that wants to mark India — a country still coming to terms with the potential of motorsports — on the world motorsport map.

“The India Baja is kind of a marker,” says Raj. “In terms of credibility, in terms of difficulty quotient, in terms of organisational excellence and global operating procedures, getting a Dakar Challenge is as good as it can get.”

The origin

It was a quiet period for rally in the country in the late 1990s, after the Himalayan Rally, an iconic event held in the Himalayan region between 1980 and 1990, and the subsequent Mountain Challenge had died down. “There was a lull and hence there was a desire to own the motorsport intellectual property, and the Raid de Himalaya was born in 1999,” recollects Raj, who had won the Gypsy Class and finished second overall in the inaugural edition of the Raid de Himalaya. (The event, incidentally, is the world’s highest rally-raid.) After the success of the event, Raj got together with Jayesh Desai, who was part of the organising team of the Raid de Himalaya, and founded the Northern motorsport.

The Northern motorsport started an autocross event under its banner in 2001 and later launched the Desert Storm Rally in 2003. “We started the Desert Storm and slowly built it up into the longest rally in India. And once we reached there, the next logical milestone was to try and emulate something that was at the pinnacle of cross-country rallying — the Dakar Rally,” recalls Raj.

To associate with the Dakar, India Baja had to make certain adjustments to the format it followed in its inaugural season. Baja rallies are conducted in two different formats: one is the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) format, governed by the cross-country rally championship regulations, which the Dakar follows, and the other is the American way of running the Baja, which is similar to the Baja 500 or the Baja 1000 events in Mexico. Basic difference between the two is that the American format runs day and night and has multiple drivers driving the same vehicle, while the FIA rule does not allow bikers in the night.

“Last year, we were trying to find a middle path between the two because the marathon concept is very exciting with multiple drivers sharing one car. So we were partly following that and partly the FIA rule. Now that we are a part of the Dakar Challenge, we are bound to follow the FIA rules. So no biker will race in the night,” informs Raj.

An intense challenge

The second edition of the India Baja will be held between April 7 and 9 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Apart from qualifying for the 2018 Dakar Rally, the winner of India Baja will also get a ticket to the Sonora Rally in South Africa and the Afriquia Merzouga Rally in Morocco. The complexities of the Baja and the attractive prizes have drawn a host of international drivers such as Joaquim Rodrigues (Portugal) and Adrian Metge (France).

According to the organisers, the India Baja will be the most challenging rally in India till date. “I’ll give you a comparison to put things in perspective,” says Raj. “The Baja is basically running 1.5 days of competition. In those 1.5 days, it is doing 430 competitive kilometres and 150-odd transport kilometres. What it means is that, in say 36 hours, we are doing 430 km of competitive sport. In comparison, in the 1.5 days in Indian national rally championship, you do 70 km. In the Raid de Himalayas, over six days we do 600km. In the Desert Storm, over six days we do 730 km. So in comparison, the Baja is very intense.

“The amount of pressure on the car and the driver is very high because you hardly have any time to breathe and you are perpetually under pressure. That is what this entire game is about — to put a competitor under tremendous pressure on a terrain that is extremely hostile, and where the weather is absolutely against him and his machine. The weather is going to completely dehydrate you and affect your ability to think or focus. The machine is going to over-heat and it will be always under pressure. So how you manage to overcome these obstacles and challenges is the game.”

According to Raj, the entire format has been designed in such a way that only the fittest, the most experienced and the strategically brilliant driver with the most reliable machine can come through. But it is equally difficult for the organisers to stage the event, challenged as they are by a highly populated country.

“What gets done in South America, Africa and Europe with 50-70 people would require around 250 volunteers here. In India, because we have more population and higher density of towns and villages, we would need far more man power to be positioned at various points along the route to ensure that the route is sanitised and has no external influences coming in.

“Laws of the land do not allow us to have certain technology, so again technology is substituted with man power and more man power. We’ve been running an event in Rajasthan for almost 15 years and we understand how the local scenarios unfold on the ground. We know that at a certain time of the day there will be more influx of man power and human interference, so the security needs to be beefed up. Eventually, the aim is to try and replicate some of the regulations and safety requirements. And even then it’s not absolutely foolproof,” informs Raj.

Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally used motorsports to experiment with their designs and Raj is of the view that India Baja will offer them a great opportunity to test their machines. “All they learn in motorsport will find its way into production today, tomorrow or the day after. motorsport helps manufacturers figure out how reliable a particular research and design idea is – the kind of testing that happens in this condition is very difficult to replicate.”

While getting the Dakar Challenge tag was important, the organisers believe the event will only be a success if it can prompt Indians to start viewing motorsports as a mainstream sport. “People have never understood the method of entering the races, the related costs, the path of growth and the reward matrix. It’s always been hazy and people have always perceived it as something not possible by the majority, something expensive… If motorsport is adopted and there are proper guidelines and steps generated for everyone to enter and experience it at low cost and as well as less effort, the growth will be exponential. And there are methods of doing this — you can experience the sport in terms of karting, in the form of an autocross, it will cost less than Rs.10000 — in fact less than Rs. 5000. It’s perceived as something that is unattainable and that is not the case,” concludes Raj.

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