The gloom in their voices obvious, India’s top cross-country rally riders CS Santosh and KP Aravind, opened up about their memories of Subhamoy Paul, who died following a crash on Tuesday at the Raid de Himalaya. They also advocated measures which can make things safer but agreed that given the nature of the sport, little can be done beyond improved monitoring and backup in case of an incident.
Santosh has taken part in some of the toughest rallies in the world, including the Dakar as well as many rounds of the FIM Cross Country Rally World Championship. The 32-year-old rider from Bengaluru says that the death of a fellow rider is hard to come to grips with. But the riders know the dangers involved, especially in events such as the Raid or Dakar, where the terrain as well as the weather conditions are extreme. And they sign up knowing what they are getting into.
The Raid stages as such — which take the competitors over rough, boulder- and pebble-strewn high altitude trails with very little or no margin for error — are testing. And there is only so much of protection the best equipment in the world allows for; even Paul was kitted out pretty well.
The 49-year-old businessman from Kolkata had been training in Europe and had some of the best equipment in the world, including the bike, a 500 KTM. But the crash on a boulder-ridden stretch near Chhatru (Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal) gave him such severe injuries that he is said to have died on the spot.
GPS and more
Having ridden in many international events, Santosh feels certain systems that are in place abroad make a difference, giving riders who crash a bit more of a chance. Of course, it is understood that the cost factor and also the sheer lack of equipment and trained personnel for something like medevac choppers, rules out such systems in India.
“The Raid de Himalaya is one of the toughest in the world and is the premier event in India,” says Santosh, who took part in in 2012 and ’13, winning it on debut. “Everybody who pursues the sport in the country wants to take part in the Raid. I made my debut in 2012 and I found the event to be well organised, with the necessary logistics in place, considering the accessibility limitations involved.”
The Raid has a network or marshals in place throughout the stages as well as first response vehicles, ambulances and a helicopter to evacuate competitors in case of emergencies. But in rallies abroad, the procedures and systems are much more sophisticated.
“Abroad we have a GPS system on the bikes with a gyroscope which is connected to an alarm system. The alarm is triggered by the gyroscope if the bike falls on the side or if we crash. The GPS sends out location pings as well,” elaborates Santosh. “And Dakar has four choppers on standby to rush to the spot out of which two are emergency medevacs (air ambulances) with all equipment and doctors in place to treat the rider even as he is flown to the hospital. In Rally Morocco last week, there were five or six doctors riding alongside through the stages on motocross bikes. They had backpacks with medical equipment and drugs.”
Doctors riding motocross motorcycles in India during a rally? Well, that won’t be possible any time soon. With the hassles involved in procuring license to use satellite phones in India, the Raid organisers have to rely on Ham Radio for communication. Air ambulances are non-existent here as well while the costs involved are too high for using a GPS-based hazard signalling and recovery system.
The fact that the Raid charges Rs. 18,000 (early entry) per competitor while the Dakar entry costs in the vicinity of Rs. 14 lakh illustrates the economic difference between the two events. The organisers provide lodging (hotels and tents in remote areas) for the duration of the event, plus the other logistics including safety systems.
Sponsorship in India for motorsport is rare, and most of the competitors are self-funded. So, increasing the entry fee is not a viable proposition for the organisers.
However Aravind, who alongside Santosh, took part in the recently concluded OiLibya Rally Morocco, the final round of the FIM Cross Country Rally World Championship, feels if it is a matter of paying a bit of extra money to ensure that a safety system is in place, no rider would say no. Aravind was the Raid de Himalaya champion last year.
“I had a crash while leading the Raid in 2014, which was probably similar to how Paul fell,” says Aravind. “I lost control on black ice and fell and broke my arm and pulled out of the rally. I was lucky, Paul wasn’t. One thing probably the organisers could do, and this is a practice I have seen abroad, is to send in a route-opener vehicle who would spot hazards and mark it with hazard signs. In rallies abroad, the route opener goes the previous day as well and then they mark out the hazards in the roadbook and give the updated roadbook to the riders. This practice, I feel could make things better for a riders.”
However, the irony remains: talking about ensuring safety when danger is what one is in for! “Paul was one of the first people to tell me that I should rally abroad,” remembers Santosh. “I knew him personally,” adds Aravind. “It could have been any one of us. I feel scared as well. Honestly, I do.”
But the two, who are taking part in the Dakar Rally next year (Santosh for Hero MotoSports and Aravind for Sherco-TVS rally team), have learnt to live with fear and “compartmentalise it” while riding... Just like the other riders who would throng again at the starting line of the Raid next year.