Dune bashing on two wheels is fun; it’s an adventure, an adrenaline rush, a test of physical limits, especially when done in Rajasthan in the middle of April, while the whole of North India is reeling under a heatwave.
But, the 2017 India Baja Dakar Challenge rally, which takes the 70-odd riders through some very challenging dunes and trails around Jaisalmer from April 7-9, is not just about an adventure anymore. The rally, organised by Northern Motorsport, has two legs, divided into six stages covering a competitive distance of 430 km, with an additional 200 km as liaison.
The event, in just its second year running, has grown in stature, from a test for the best Raid Rally riders in the country to one that would expand the horizons of the very-talented but exposure-starved Indian riders.
No wonder, TVS Racing and Hero Motosports Team Rally -- both of whom have set sights on the famed Dakar Rally -- see India Baja as a must-win event.
Both the teams have been preparing their riders -- in seclusion that too -- to hit the dunes with a bang, trying to surprise each other with what their machines and riders can do.
It is an intriguing chess game of sorts before the real event starts, with both teams fielding strong riders, including two overseas exponents.
TVS have R Nataraj, KP Aravind and Abdul Wahid Tanveer leading their challenge alongside France’s Adrien Metge, while Hero have Portuguese rider Joaquim Rodrigues a.k.a “J-Rod”, to lead the challenge in the absence of the injured CS Santosh.
Full throttle at Baja
The teams have a good reason to go all out at the Baja.
The event has been given a Dakar Challenge status this year, with the winner getting free entries into the Merzouga Rally in Morocco, and to the ultimate holy grail of Raid Rallies -- the Dakar.
With Hero and TVS (Sherco TVS Racing) competing in the Dakar, to get one of their riders qualified from an Indian event will give the team that manages that a one-up.
But beyond the PR mileage and bragging rights, Baja’s achieving the Dakar Challenge status in just its second-year running, and TVS Racing and Hero Motosports Team’s dogfight for supremacy at the event, reflect the considerable change in the Indian Raid Rally scene and the psyche of the riders in the last three years, ever since the Dakar debut of CS Santosh.
After Santosh’s Dakar Rally debut in 2015 (he has taken part in three Dakars, debuting with KTM, then Suzuki and competing in the last edition with Hero), talented riders such as TVS Racing’s Nataraj and Aravind (who competed in Dakar this year), have started to dream and work towards reaching the premier rally held in South America every January.
Santosh, who will not take part in the Baja this year because of an injury, explains how the event in Jaisalmer is reflective of the shift in fortunes of Indian rally.
“Dakar Rally is a dream for any rider,” says Santosh. “When I started off working towards Dakar, it was a distant dream, almost intangible for any Indian. Now with Indians riding in Dakar, and a Dakar Challenge event happening in India, all upcoming riders can see that dream clearly, can set their targets and work towards it. And with TVS and Hero -- two major Indian manufacturers -- throwing in their might, things look really bright. Young riders these days work with a goal in mind and also know that they can make it a viable professional option as manufacturers are willing to extend support.
“It is an exciting period for Indian rally riders,” adds Santosh.
Meanwhile, Nataraj, who won the gruelling Desert Storm in March, and Aravind-- known for his sheer pace on the trails-- are hoping to seal their slot for next year’s Dakar in India. A podium sweep is within their grasp, they feel, especially since national champion Tanveer is also in the fray alongside the experienced Frenchman Metge.
The technical but fast Baja stages this year will suit the styles of the TVS riders too. And with local lads Nataraj, fresh from his victory in Desert Storm on similar terrain, and Tanveer, who is adept at racing in the desert, TVS start favourites.
But Hero has a Portuguese ace up their sleeve. J-Rod, who comes in with a global reputation, will be around to try and spoil TVS Racing’s podium sweep aspirations.
Whatever be the final result at Baja this year, the action would set a new benchmark in Indian rallying, and gift young Indian riders a new, global outlook and a goal to aspire for.