Crashes, bro­ken bones, ex­treme heat, washed out stages, mar­row-freez­ing cold, apoc­a­lyp­tic weather, the Dakar is ev­ery bit as dif­fi­cult as you’d ex­pect of the world’s tough­est mo­tor­sport event. And then some...


Prov­ing grounds for tough peo­ple

C S SAN­TOSH: “I HAD NO EN­ERGY. I com­pletely ex­pended my­self. Ev­ery­thing that could go wrong, went wrong.”

Aravind K P: “I crashed many times and I got tired do­ing it, the same thing over and over again.”

It’s only the fourth day of the 2017 Dakar, the hard­est, most dif­fi­cult of all the Dakar’s held in South Amer­ica. One is in the med­i­cal cen­tre hav­ing been evac­u­ated by the med­i­cal chop­per the other is ex­hausted beyond words and just “happy to be back.” Talk about a trial by fire for two In­dian riders, two In­dian man­u­fac­tur­ers and, even two In­dian journos as­signed to cover the most in­cred­i­ble mo­tor­sport event in the world.

It’s a long way away!

36 hours. That’s how long it took me to get to Asuncion, the cap­i­tal of Paraguay, start of the 2017 edi­tion of the Dakar. As the clock struck 12 in In­dia to mark the start of the New Year, I was some­where over the At­lantic thank­ful that air­planes to­day have on­board Wi-Fi to work Whats App. Nine hours later, I check into our ho­tel as fire­works go off over the river in Asuncion to mark the New Year in South Amer­ica, my bags with all my gear for a week on the Dakar, un­trace­able (thank you, Emi­rates). Some­body whis­pers in my ear, “This is the Dakar.” Yeah, right.

Who is the fastest In­dian?

That’s what we are here to find out. C S San­tosh, what­ever he does, will al­ways be a hero in my books. No­body thought it was pos­si­ble, yet he pulled it off. Wear­ing a Red Bull hat at a jaunty an­gle, and with cash from friends and fam­ily, he got astride a semi-works KTM and fin­ished the Dakar on his de­but in 2015.

The very same year, In­dia’s old­est and most suc­cess­ful rac­ing team, TVS Rac­ing, dipped their toes in the Dakar with the French out­fit Sherco Mo­tor­cy­cles. Far from a sticker job, TVS used the pro­gramme to blood and train their race engi­neers, In­dian hands span­ner­ing the Sherco rally bikes, and now that pro­gramme has log­i­cally ex­panded to get an In­dian in the sad­dle.

“I got into the trail sec­tion, couldn’t grip the han­dle­bars and went down” – Aravind

Aravind K P has a lot to be grate­ful for. Grate­ful to San­tosh for open­ing the doors and show­ing the world (and more im­por­tantly, peo­ple back home!) that an In­dian can cut it in the Dakar. Thank­ful to TVS Rac­ing for putting their faith (and money!) in him and giv­ing him the op­por­tu­nity of a life­time. I don’t need a tele lens to make out all 32 of his teeth, glint­ing in the sun­light as he takes the start of the most im­por­tant race of his life. Half an hour later (for the cer­e­mo­nial start runs in re­verse start­ing or­der) C S San­tosh rides up on his white mo­tor­cy­cle and hugs a man in a white t-shirt who I recog­nise through the tele lens. Year one – KTM; year two – Suzuki; year three – In­dia’s and the world’s, largest twowheeler man­u­fac­turer. Hero Mo­tor Corp’s new found en­thu­si­asm for mo­tor­sport is driven by the man in the white t-shirt on the podium, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer Markus Braun­sperger, a hard­core biker if there ever was one. The newly formed Hero Moto Sports team has roped in the Ger­man Speed brain out­fit (with a back cat­a­logue of clients in­clud­ing BMW, Husq­varna and Honda) to run their Dakar squad. San­tosh sports num­ber 42. Aravind is num­ber 77. Hero v TVS. Speed brain v Sherco. Ger­many v France – in the ser­vice of In­dia’s fastest riders.

Of course we are also here to see Mr WRC Se­bastien Loeb take on Mr Dakar Stephane Peter­hansel, El Matador Car­los Sainz take on the Desert Sheikh Nasser Al At­tiyah. We are also here to see the 950bhp trucks race each other and, of course, Honda go all out to brake

KTM’s dom­i­nance of the Dakar. Like hell I am go­ing to hang around in Paraguay for my bags to ar­rive. We can buy a sleep­ing bag in Ar­gentina.

Bus, car, plane from bivouac to bivouac

We’ve signed up for some­thing called the Press Plane pack and I have an added pho­tog­ra­pher ac­cred­i­ta­tion that is sup­posed to get me ad­di­tional ac­cess, though I am yet to find out what that is. The ac­cred­i­ta­tion costs such an eye-wa­ter­ing sum of money that I fear you might get a mild stroke if I tell you the ex­act amount. Let’s just say we could do an around the world trip on what we paid the or­gan­is­ers, the ASO. In busi­ness class.

But what an op­er­a­tion the ASO runs! At Asuncion we find our way to the press cen­tre lo­cated in the foot­ball sta­dium and get all our ac­cred­i­ta­tion for­mal­i­ties done. South Amer­i­can visas take the long­est time for us In­di­ans and by the time we were done with Paraguay and Bo­livia we didn’t have enough time for Ar­gentina. For­tu­nately, the press of­fi­cer Jus­tine takes us to meet the head of the Ar­gen­tinian em­bassy who grants us visas. What luck!

The ac­cred­i­ta­tion cen­tre is a vast hall, one of those mas­sive con­fer­ence rooms in a ho­tel, with some­thing like 20 bays for dif­fer­ent pa­per­work – med­i­cal, doc­u­men­ta­tion, road books, photo ac­cred­i­ta­tion and nu­mer­ous other things for the crews and driv­ers. And at the end of it you clear im­mi­gra­tion – Paraguay exit and Ar­gentina en­try, all stamped on your pass­port and a lit­tle red book that you hand over to the or­gan­is­ers who then con­firm your place in the Press Plane pack. Which, turns out, is a mis­nomer as we’re asked to be ready at 3:30am, yes AM, for a dou­ble-decker bus that will take us to the bivouac in Re­sisten­cia, Ar­gentina.

Ac­tion? Ap­par­ently the guys on the Press Plane Pack only travel from bivouac to bivouac so, alarmed out of our minds, we find the or­gan­is­ers who put our names down for a For­tuner that will take us to the end of the next day’s stage at 3:45am. Groan!

Not that we sleep very well. Re­sisten­cia is hot as hell and we are camp­ing in the bivouac, in a tent bor­rowed from the Sherco guys. I crawl into

the tent and crawl back out in ten sec­onds – it’s a fur­nace in­side! Even­tu­ally I lay the sleep­ing bag on the tar­mac (the bivouac is setup on a race track) and try to catch some sleep as the race trucks rum­ble in through the night, engi­neers test their cars on the road (full revs all the way to fourth!) and I per­spire a small river.

The next day we take the first and only plane trans­fer of our Dakar ad­ven­ture to Ju­juy where we find our In­di­ans in all kinds of trou­ble.

A short-lived de­but

One kilo­me­tre from the end of the very first stage, the short 29km pro­logue in Paraguay. Aravind has al­ready made up 17 places when he lines up to over­take a slower rider but he

“We worked so hard to move up. Now it’s all gone. It’s so easy to lose heart” – San­tosh

gets cut out, has to grab the brakes and the front washes out in the slush. Aravind is down, dazed, his brand new hel­met do­ing its job but leav­ing him with a bruise above his left eye. He even­tu­ally fin­ishes the stage in 63rd place af­ter mak­ing 14 places and heads to the med­i­cal cen­tre where an X-ray con­firms two bro­ken bones in his left palm (the soft bones be­tween the mid­dle two knuck­les and the wrist) and an ag­gra­va­tion to an old wrist in­jury.

“I’ve come too far to call it quits now”, says Aravind as he gets down to work­ing on his road book for the next day while Prakasham, Aravind’s me­chanic from TVS Rac­ing, gets down to work on the Sherco TVS RTR 450 that has suf­fered rather ex­ten­sive dam­age. The

hel­met has to be thrown away too.

David Cas­teu, Sherco TVS’s team man­ager and a veteran of 13 Dakars with a best of third in 2008 to his name, is wor­ried. He knows it will need su­per­hu­man ef­fort for Aravind to get to the end of the Dakar in Buenos Aires in two weeks time, but the In­dian rider does re­deem him­self the next day when he finds his team­mate Adrian Metge stranded in the stage with a blown en­gine and tows him 70km through the stage and a fur­ther 100km in the trans­port stage back to the bivouac. Aravind is in ob­vi­ous agony when I see him in the bivouac but the med­i­cal team says he is okay to con­tinue.

Day four. In the me­dia cen­tre Aravind’s name does not flash up on the first check point. Calls are made. David con­firms Aravind has crashed and is out. How bad we ask? No­body knows. In the evening word comes that he’s in the med­i­cal cen­tre with a shoul­der in­jury and will join us the next day as the weather is too rough for the med­i­cal chop­per to bring him to the bivouac.

Next day Aravind meets us in Bo­livia and de­scribes his crash.

“The stage was re­ally, re­ally rough. Full of off-piste (no marked tracks) sec­tions and full of sand. I reached the 40km mark and it got tougher and tougher. I got into the trail sec­tion and I couldn’t grip the han­dle bars and I went down, hit my­self on the rock and hy­per ex­tended my shoul­der.

“The whole body was com­pen­sat­ing for my wrist. And since I couldn’t go fast I would crash on the corners be­cause there were deep ruts in the sand.

“I was very tired, I had crashed many times be­fore that since I couldn’t main­tain my speed in the sand. And you re­ally can’t stay up if you don’t have the cor­rect speed on the sandy sec­tions. And I got tired do­ing it, the same thing over and over again. At the start of the stage the bike is around 140kg with a full load of fuel and ev­ery time I go down and I lift the bike there is so much more en­ergy I am los­ing which you can use for the next 30-40km.”

The last crash was it for Aravind. De­hy­drated and ex­hausted he hit the but­ton on his bike

for the med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion chop­per and that was that for his Dakar de­but. His road to re­demp­tion, the train­ing, the in­cred­i­ble work that will be re­quired if Aravind is to come back to the Dakar in 2018 be­gins right now.

Not a sticker job

The TVS part­ner­ship with Sherco be­gan in 2014 when the boss of TVS Rac­ing Arvind Pan­gaonkar met with Sherco’s boss Marc Tessier on a visit to Europe and they hit it off fa­mously. One thing led to an­other and TVS Rac­ing’s flags ap­peared in the Sherco pits on the 2015 Dakar, bring­ing three In­dian me­chan­ics to span­ner the Sherco 450 rally bikes. This year TVS Rac­ing’s Prakasham has grad­u­ated to the lead me­chanic for Aravind K P’s bike, David Cas­teu the Sherco team man­ager be­ing very im­pressed with not just his tech­ni­cal skill but his un­flinch­ing ded­i­ca­tion and never-say-never at­ti­tude.

TVS Mo­tor Com­pany engi­neers have also been vis­it­ing Sherco’s fac­tory in Nimes with the knowl­edge trans­fer be­ing two-way. Sherco has ex­pe­ri­ence with en­duro and rally-raid bikes while TVS has vast en­gi­neer­ing re­sources, so­phis­ti­cated CAD/CAM tools and ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing and pro­to­typ­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. One can safely as­sume that TVS is giv­ing as much as they’re tak­ing from this part­ner­ship (Sherco ran a new pro­to­type en­gine for Pe­drero with a cru­cial 8 ad­di­tional horse­power) and it’ll only be a mat­ter of time be­fore a vari­a­tion of the Sherco RTR 450 will be seen in In­dian ral­lies and su­per­cross events.

Lean and mean

The Dakar is an in­cred­i­ble ad­ven­ture – two weeks across South Amer­ica, an av­er­age of 700-900km ev­ery day, ter­rain that’s back and bike break­ing and to han­dle all of this the Sherco TVS team have… nine peo­ple. And the nine peo­ple in­clude the three riders! Think about that for a minute. Six guys to take care of three mo­tor­cy­cles on the Dakar, one of which (Pe­drero with the pro­to­type en­gine) won the open­ing stage of the 2017 edi­tion.

The Sherco setup con­sists of three blue Mercedes vans, one of which has been out­fit­ted

“This is the Dakar”, they

all tell me. Yeah, right!

with three beds and an air-con­di­tioner so the riders can get a good night’s rest. The rest of the crew sleeps in tents, one of which your re­porter has bor­rowed be­cause Emi­rates lost his afore­men­tioned bags on the way to Paraguay.

Over at Hero Mo­toS­port’s setup there’s a proper Dakar-spec Mercedes 6x6 Ac­tros truck that looks pur­pose­ful and su­per-or­gan­ised as be­fit­ting a Ger­man team that once ran BMW’s Dakar bikes. The truck also has an at­tached shower which gives San­tosh (and the rest of the ten man Speed­brain crew) a mod­icum of pri­vacy un­like the com­mu­nal bath­rooms in the bivouac that ev­ery­body (in­clud­ing your cor­re­spon­dent) uses.

“It was mad­ness”

C S San­tosh has a sim­i­larly night­mar­ish day four, telling me, “I’m just happy to be back”. He looks fin­ished, phys­i­cally and men­tally drained. “We worked so hard to move up (yes­ter­day). Now it’s all gone. It’s so easy to lose heart.”

He had so many crashes he couldn’t keep track. “I was lucky. You know when you are lucky, when you are get­ting away with stuff. I had lots of crashes, some crashes that would have been pretty big but some­how man­aged to save it."

And he lost his way. “I couldn’t even nav­i­gate. It was so hard. The thing about nav­i­ga­tion is you need to be able to process the in­for­ma­tion but to­day the stage was so hard all my pro­cess­ing power was used in just try­ing to ride the mo­tor­cy­cle.”

San­tosh also missed two way points and in the night, word would come in of a 90-minute penalty drop­ping him down to 87th place. That’s way be­low his ca­pa­bil­ity, his skill level. He tells me that had he stuck with the top 40 for the first sec­tion of the Dakar then fin­ish­ing in the top twenty by Buenos Aires would have been en­tirely pos­si­ble. But now that’s an up­hill task.

“To­day was mad­ness. And to­mor­row it all starts again.”

And it gets worse

“Wow man”, says San­tosh as I sit down with him for a long chat on the rest day in La Paz, the cap­i­tal of Bo­livia. It has been the hard­est Dakar in all the years that the event has run in South Amer­ica but San­tosh has made it to the half way point.

To bring you up to speed from Ju­juy, the Dakar moved up the An­des into Bo­livia, swap­ping the heat for sin­gle-digit tem­per­a­tures, the hu­mid­ity for apoc­a­lyp­tic rain, and all-round light­head­ed­ness courtesy the al­ti­tude. Start­ing way, way down made things even harder for San­tosh. “There was so much talk of the dunes and those dunes were the hard­est ever. It’s in­cred­i­ble! The bike was strug­gling (due to the al­ti­tude) and so was the hu­man be­ing. I took a cou­ple of min­utes ev­ery now and then just to catch my breath be­cause I dropped the bike a cou­ple of times.”

But worse was to come on day six when the heav­ens opened up and the stage had to be cut short at the 165km mark. “Wow. That day the li­ai­son com­ing into Oruru (in Bo­livia) was killer. Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the stages are re­ally hard in the Dakar but then you get to the li­ai­son and it’s not any eas­ier. Even though you are on the road, the weather con­di­tions are ad­verse and since we race stages we can’t ac­tu­ally wear stuff that can help us when it is wet and cold. You have to tough it out and it was re­ally cold that day and it was rain­ing. And ev­ery time you see clouds here and there and you’re pray­ing please, I just hope the road doesn’t wind through them. That’s all you are pray­ing for 300km.”

A pres­i­dent named Evo

The Bo­li­vian pres­i­dent is a huge, huge Dakar fan – no won­der, con­sid­er­ing his first name is Evo! And he isn’t alone. Leav­ing the bivouac in Ar­gentina at an un­earthly hour we were stunned to find crowds lining the road, even pack­ing makeshift grand stands – at 4 in the morn­ing! At petrol pumps we were swamped for self­ies, just be­cause our For­tuner had Dakar stick­ers on it. Get­ting to La Paz, crowds lined the streets for 30km get­ting into and through

the city to the mid-way podium where Evo Mo­rales, the pres­i­dent, obliged ev­ery sin­gle par­tic­i­pant for a selfie. In the lit­tle vil­lage of Po­tosi in Bo­livia where stage five ended there was a fes­tive at­mos­phere akin to Durga Puja in Kolkata, a mil­i­tary band play­ing, and ev­ery­body was wav­ing Bo­li­vian flags. If only we In­di­ans had one tenth the en­thu­si­asm of the South Amer­i­cans.

As for the front run­ners

For­got­ten have we about Loeb? About the mad Peu­geots and even mad­der Ka­maz trucks? Well first to go out was the Qatari Nasser Al At­tiyah, who sheared off his left rear wheel and ev­ery­thing that was at­tached to it mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for his Toy­ota Ga­zoo Rac­ing team to put his Hilux back to­gether again. Then Car­los Sainz bar­rel-rolled his Peu­geot and though he did limp it back to the bivouac (these things are made like tanks!) his team said it was im­pos­si­ble to re­pair in time. And so it was left to Peter­hansel and Loeb to dice with each other while De­spres made it an all Peu­geot podium at the mid-way mark ahead of Nani Roma in the first of the Toy­ota Hilux’s ahead of an­other WRC-refugee Mikko Hir­vo­nen be­ing the fastest of the (not-so-mini) Mini. The X-Raid team were run­ning ten Mi­nis, mas­sive beasts that can only be called Mini out of irony, but they were hope­lessly out­classed by the fac­tory Peu­geots and Toy­otas.

The trucks, the beasts, had de­fend­ing cham­pion Gerad De Rooy’s IVECO ahead of a pla­toon of Rus­sians in their Ka­maz.

On the bike front, Honda looked com­fort­able in the lead when they made a mon­u­men­tal blun­der, re­fu­elling all the HRC bikes in a pro­hib­ited area and get­ting slapped with a one hour penalty. Toby Price, last year’s win­ner (and San­tosh’s 2015 team­mate) crashed from the lead and shat­tered his thigh bone and that left an­other KTM rider Sam Sun­der­land in the lead at La Paz.

Be­tween Sherco TVS and Hero Speed­brain, the former tasted first blood with Pe­drero win­ning the very first stage but the Span­ish rider dropped down the or­der when his en­gine blew on day five and got slapped with a penalty. Mean­while in the white cor­ner, Joaquim Rodrigues, mak­ing his Dakar de­but, knocked on the top ten, rolling into La Paz, 11th in the gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion. For a bike based on the 2013 Husq­varna that Speed­brain used to run, Hero’s re­sults were noth­ing short of spec­tac­u­lar.

This is the Dakar

Any­thing that goes wrong, any hard­ship any­body faces, that’s the stan­dard re­tort. “This is the Dakar.”

By the sixth day we’ve had it. I’ve al­ready run through the Emi­rates toi­letry kit and four shirts and one pant I’ve bought in Ar­gentina, look­ing like a home­less tramp with only a knap­sack while the rest of the press corp lugged around heavy bags and tents from bus to me­dia tent ev­ery day. I know this will sound stupid, but just fol­low­ing the Dakar puts a toll on you. For three days in a row we were bussed, overnight, from bivouac to bivouac and that turned out to be a bless­ing – an air-con­di­tioned bus is a far nicer place to sleep in than a swel­ter­ing (or freez­ing) tent. I’m not ashamed to say on day three, in Tu­cuman, we found a Sher­a­ton where we got a full night’s sleep while our other col­leagues dis­cov­ered there aren’t too many joys to camp­ing.

Things re­ally peaked at the bivouac in Oruru where we reached at 9am af­ter a ten hour bus ride. Out of breath (the camp is higher than Kaza on the Raid!) we had a com­mu­nal shower in near-freez­ing con­di­tions and then saw the skies turn an ugly grey be­fore it turned the en­tire camp into one huge slush pit. At 9pm we lugged our lug­gage through knee deep slush and piled into the busses where we were told we aren’t go­ing any­where and were handed food ra­tions to last through the night. Luck­ily some­body re­alised the longer we waited, the less likely the bus would make it out of the slushy bivouac and we were even­tu­ally bussed to La Paz where we hailed the first taxi we could find, found a ho­tel, and slept for 15 hours straight. This, re­ally, is the Dakar. L

The sec­ond half of the Dakar had a trun­cated two days in Bo­livia due to the rains and then stage 9 in Ar­gentina was can­celled due to land­slides. Up front Mr Dakar, Stephane Peter­hansel tri­umphed over Mr WRC Se­bastien Loeb, the lat­ter ru­ing the omis­sion of WRC-like stages in the sec­ond half. Cyril De­spres made it a Peu­geot 1-2-3 with Nani Roma in the Toy­ota Hilux the best of the rest in fourth. In the trucks Ed­uard Niko­laev won for the sec­ond time in the Rus­sian Ka­maz with team­mate Dmitry Sot­nikov tak­ing sec­ond ahead of 2016 win­ner Ger­ard de Rooy in the IVECO. And in the bikes Sam Sun­der­land, rid­ing a KTM, took the first Dakar win for a Brit head­ing a KTM podium lock out ahead of Matthias Walkner and Ger­ard Far­res.

As for our In­dian team Hero MotoSports had a fan­tas­tic de­but year bring­ing both bikes home to the fin­ish with rookie Rodrigues fin­ish­ing a phe­nom­e­nal 10th while C S San­tosh took his sec­ond Dakar fin­ish, rid­ing up the ramp in Buenos Aires in 47th po­si­tion. Team Sherco TVS also had a great fin­ish with Pe­drero fin­ish­ing 13th in the over­all stand­ings with Metge 22nd.

Left: Aravind be­came the sec­ond In­dian to take part in the Dakar, rid­ing a Sherco TVS RTR 450. Fac­ing page: But Aravind broke two bones in his left palm on the pro­logue stage. Above: Aravind in ac­tion on the RTR 450 on day two, rid­ing with the in­jury

Fac­ing page: C S San­tosh in ac­tion on the Ar­gen­tinian sand dunes.

Left: An in­jured Aravind catches up with San­tosh in Bo­livia. Be­low: Team Hero Mo­toS­port (L-R) Hero Mo­toCorp CTO Markus Braun­sperger, mo­tor sport head Ro­hit Is­sac, Speed­brain CEO Wolf­gang Fis­cher and dig­i­tal lead Sushant Vashistha

Above: Toby Price led Dakar be­fore crash­ing and suf­fer­ing mul­ti­ple breaks to his thigh bone. Left: Bo­li­vian pres­i­dent’s name is Evo!

Top left: The mighty Rus­sian Ka­maz trucks once again took a

1-2 fin­ish

Fac­ing page: Best of the Toy­otas was Nani Roma in fourth with Giniel de Vil­liers bring­ing his Hilux home in fifth.

Right: Heavy rains in Bo­livia turned bivouacs into slush, made stages hell for par­tic­i­pants and even forced one stage to be can­celled

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