While the machismo and the adrenaline-filled excitement of taking part in a rally that has the “Dakar” tag attached to it kept everyone revved up in the morning, the competitors of the 2017 India Baja were a slightly subdued lot by the end the four stages of Day 1 (Leg 1) on the dunes near Jaisalmer on Saturday.
It was a day dominated by Hero Motosport’s Joaquim “J-Rod” Rodruigues in moto (two-wheeler) category, while Raj Singh Rathore led in the pack in the Xtreme four-wheeler segment.
However, more significant than the leaderboard dynamics was the fact that the day gave a reality check, not just for the competitors -- both in Xtreme and moto segments -- but for Indian motorsport as well.
While India Baja getting the Dakar Challenge status is, no doubt, a landmark, the action that transpired on Day 1 showed us that Indian drivers and riders need a lot of catching up to do to do justice to a “Dakar series” event. The only Indians who fared decently were the talented TVS Racing bunch and a few senior pros in Xtreme and moto segments, including Rathore.
The sheer distances involved -- close to 300 km including liaison (transport) stage in the extreme heat and tricky terrain was something most Indian riders and drivers were not used to. The Desert Storm -- considered a big challenge in this part of the world -- seems more like a Sunday drive when compared to the intensity and distance the riders and drivers had to endure at Baja.
And not surprisingly, there were DNFs and pullouts galore.
Of the 32 competitors each in moto and xtreme categories, only 15 bikes and 18 cars were running by the end of the third stage -- thanks to mechanical failures, cars toppling, bikes crashing and the worst of it all, losing way.
Abdul Wahid Tanveer of TVS Racing, who was classified 3rd in moto after Day 1, explained the challenges he faced in what was a day of big step up for him.
Tanveer, unlike his TVS teammate KP Aravind (who is placed second), has not raced in any cross-country rally whose challenge is comparable to the Dakar.
“The Desert Storm is nothing compared to this,” said Tanveer. “There, you have a maximum of 40-50km or competitive stages in a day and maybe 50-60km or transport. In Baja, it’s close to 300km total in a day. That takes its toll -- physically and mentally and on the bikes too. So we make mistakes.”
And India Baja is just a two-day event while the real Dakar stretches on for 12 days of action, weather and terrain more extreme and varying than what the riders and drivers are facing in Baja.
So, it was no surprise that the seasoned Portuguese rider Joaquim Rodrigues of Hero Motosports, who finished in the Dakar Rally in January, is in the lead after Day 1. J-Rod is followed by KP Aravind (almost 20 minutes behind) and Tanveer of TVS, whose foreign star, Adrien Metge of Fance is out of the rally following a mechanical failure on the fourth stage.
In the Xtreme four-wheeler segment, former Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm champion, the seasoned Raj Singh Rathore (co-driver Jeevarathinam J) driving an Isuzu DMax V-Cross is leading, ahead of Gaurav Chiripal (Karan Arya) and Himanshu Arora (Chirag Thakur).