In India, motoring has been synonymous with Maruti Suzuki but the fact is, the brand has been a pioneer in Indian motorsport as well. Over the years, machinery from Maruti Suzuki’s stable – everything from the little 800 to the iconic Gypsy, the versatile Esteem, the powerful Baleno sedan and the tough Grand Vitara have helped the motorsport enthusiast experience the thrill of motorsport across various disciplines. Not just that, India’s largest car manufacturer has not rested on its laurels and continued to actively promote the sport from grassroot to the top echelons.
Sitting right at the top of the pile are the blue riband events – the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya, the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm and the Maruti Suzuki Dakshin Dare. Covering starkly different landscapes from the snow abode where temperatures can drop to 10 degrees below 0 to the treacherous Thar Desert where 50 degree ambient temperatures aren’t unheard of. Down south, the challenges are similar, narrow and high-speed tracks with rapidly changing topography challenge the participants.
Of the three, the Raid de Himalaya has, of course, been the longest running event, with 17 editions completed so far. The Desert Storm has been challenging the runners and riders for 14 years while the comparatively new Dakshin Dare has been running successfully since 2009.
National Superleague Rally Championship
Given the tough and demanding nature of rally raids, it might be unthinkable to wake up one day and decide to tackle Mother Nature’s most diversely challenging terrain – the Himalayas, the Thar or the hills of the South. Understanding that more drivers and enthusiasts would want to gain more experience in a competitive environment before transitioning into the top realm, Maruti Suzuki has introduced the National Superleague Rally Championship this year.
With the calendar made up of six events across the country, enthusiasts from all walks of life can come and put their driving skills to test in a competitive environment. With events covering some of the most picturesque locales, competitors need to participate
in all six events to qualify for the championship.
A well-known Maruti Suzuki initiative – Maruti Suzuki Autocross – is where it all starts. Road cars driven by everyday people from all walks of life. This is where interest can convert to enthusiasm – thanks to the rush of attacking a tight, challenging course in a car that you’d commute to office in. A combination of dirt and tarmac layouts can enable you learn a lot about your car and its limits – which ultimately leads to a safer drive amidst the organised chaos that is Indian traffic.
With rounds in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, a huge throng of novice and experienced competitors attack the track, learning to push their cars to the limits. Getting your first taste of competitive motorsport in an accessible, economical and convenient environment doesn’t get any better.
Executive director, marketing and sales,
Maruti Suzuki India Limited
This was the 14th edition of the Desert Storm. What are your thoughts?
We have done pioneering work on promoting motorsport among the youth and Desert Storm is one of our most important cross-country rallies. We are continuously improving on the format and there were a few new things, including the flexi format in the Xplore category.
Importantly, we focused on the safety aspect as well, and each vehicle was equipped with a GPS tracker system.
We had the highest-ever participation of over 200 competitors, and participation from female drivers has been on the rise as well, with 13 women competing in this edition of the Desert Storm. Going forward, we would like to make this format of rallying even more challenging.
Maruti has been the pioneer in motorsport for several years now. What is the motivation and vision as far as Maruti’s involvement is concerned?
We want to promote motorsport among the youth, but in India, it is still at a very nascent stage. Although we have done 17 and 14 years of the Raid de Himalaya and Desert Storm, respectively, motorsport is yet to catch the fancy of the masses. This is the reason we are promoting Autocross which is a relatively more accessible format and these competitors graduate to Time-Speed-Distance format of rallying, like in the National Superleague Rally championship instated this year and before eventually making it to the cross-country rallying. I am sure that some of our participants here will eventually graduate to the Dakar which is the toughest rally in the world.
Rana Weathers The Storm
The Desert Storm – one of India’s toughest rally raids, behind only perhaps the Raid de Himalaya in terms of challenge – is a tough proposition for competitors as it is. The vast expanse of the Thar Desert, long stages with no prior recce and a massive potential of going sightseeing (rally speak for wasting time by wandering off the prescribed route), is no walk in the park.
Traditionally, the Desert Storm is held in the month of February, and understandably so – before the torturous summer sets in at the heart of Rajasthan. This year though, the event was pushed into April as organisers wanted to align the Desert Storm with other international cross-country raids on the FIA calendar. This was possibly the only slot available before the even more relentless heat kicked in, and Northern Motorsport, the event organiser took it.
Nine-time Raid winner Rana, who hails from Manali where temperatures seldom breach 20 degree Celsius, is, of course, no stranger to the arid environs of the Thar, being a four-time Desert Storm winner in his 11 years of competition. However, he managed to underestimate the challenges of the sweltering heat and suffered a sunstroke on the opening day of the rally, losing precious time to rival Aabhishek Mishra.
“I haven’t participated here in April so I just didn’t expect it to be so hot, and I was not prepared. I had a lot of issues with the heat, just not being used to it. Leg 1 especially, I was unable to do the times we were hoping to. Luckily, we managed to recover in Leg Two and work on regaining the lost ground from then on”, commented Rana after the finish.
Aabhishek Mishra, on the other hand, was relishing the challenge and extending his lead at the head of the standings, a chunk of that coming in the opening two legs whilst Rana was struggling with the adverse conditions.
“So far, everything has been good for us but it is still a long rally to go, nothing can be predicted. In the early stages, the car was also fresh but now, it is no more the case, as things are taking a toll. So, we need to keep it cool and finish the rally. Wherever we get a chance to push, we’ll push, but for now, the strategy is to keep calm and get closer to the finish. If we need to push somewhere there, we’ll go for it”, said Mishra as the rally left Bikaner after Leg Two with the Jaipur driver having amassed a consequential lead of over 15 minutes.
“Yes, I think he [Aabhishek] made a lot of time which was not possible otherwise, as I made a lot of mistakes under heat exhaustion. After a bad Day One, I was far from my best on the second day as well, but I was telling myself to just make it to Day Three somehow – which is where we started pushing. I wanted to put him under pressure as I was hoping that he’d make a mistake somewhere and eventually that’s what happened”, Rana added, alluding to a massive accident Mishra had in the SS9 in Jaisalmer.
Mishra and navigator PVS Murthy managed to escape serious harm after rolling over their Grand Vitara several times, with Mishra reportedly suffering a concussion while Murthy ended up with a dislocated shoulder.
Both Rana and navigator Ashwin Naik, along with eventual runner-up Amanpreet Ahluwalia and Virender Kashyap stopped mid-stage to help the duo after the incident before continuing the rally.
From there on, with only three stages remaining – Rana cruised to a comfortable finish, winning the Desert Storm in style ahead of Amanpreet Ahluwalia who came in over a minute
and 10 seconds behind – clearly showcasing the advantage of the more modern Vitara over the erstwhile king of off-road – the Gypsy.
Ahmedabad’s Niju Padia, with navigator Nirav Mehta, finished a commendable third in their Pajero Sport despite several small setbacks over the course of the rally. It was quite close in the end with just three minutes separating them from second placed Ahluwalia.
Jasmohan Singh (navigator Gunpreet Sawhney) and Lt Col S Baja (navigator Capt HS Rathore) rounded off the top five in Xtreme, both drivers piloting a Maruti Gypsy.
Ace motorcycle rallyist CS Santosh was the clear favourite going into the 2016 Desert Storm – gunning for a hat-trick of Desert Storm titles this year. The Bengaluru rider was astride his Suzuki RMZ 450Z – pretty much the same chassis that he competed at the Dakar with, just three months ago. Competition included TVS Racing’s Aravind KP and R Natraj, both aboard TVS RTR 450s and an entourage from Austria including three Dakar finishers – siblings Rene and Kurt Steinhart and Robert Hirt, with all riders astride KTM machinery. Paraplegic athlete Markus Pösendorfer was a part of Team Austria as well, aboard a KTM Quad.
Santosh made a conservative start, eking out a two-minute advantage over Jess David on Day One but made his intentions clear at the end of Leg Two as he made a staggering 20 minutes over his competition. It was instantly clear that he was pretty much untouchable and he went on to amass a scarcely believable lead that stretching to over an hour to his closest competitor Aravind K P. In the penultimate stage though, he was slapped with a penalty of 60 minutes for missing a passage control section in the second night stage. Despite the stroke of luck, making seven minutes over the final stage proved to be an insurmountable task for the TVS rider and Santosh’s massive cushion helped him secure the top spot without any fuss.
Talking about the challenges of the Storm compared to international rallies including the Dakar, Santosh remarked, “I think when I did the Desert Storm first , it was one of the longest rallies in India. But when I moved on to do international events, I realised that the stages that we do here are really, really short!”
“Like Abu Dhabi [FIA cross-country championship event] itself was 250km every day in the dunes. And then, of course, the Dakar where you do 450-500km of Super Special stages with liason on top of that, so you end up doing 800km a day for almost two weeks straight. Here, that’s pretty much the length of the rally”, he added.
In the NDure category, competitors, for the most part, traversed the same terrains as XTreme teams but in the Time-Speed-Distance format. SK Ajgar Ali and his navigator MK Mohammed Musthafa managed to cement themselves in the lead from the get-go, completing the opening two legs with a penalty of one minute, 3 seconds. Their closest competitors Jagmeet Gill and Chandan Sen were some distance behind with a penalty of four minutes, 24 seconds. Vishnu Singh and Adhithya Anthony were third after Leg Two and while a close fight ensued for second and third places, Ali didn’t relinquish the lead even once for the duration of the event.
Eventually, it was the Singh-Anthony duo who clinched second place on the podium while Gill-Sen had to settle for third as the rallyists made it to Jodhpur for the final leg.
This year, the Xplore category in the Desert Storm followed a rather interesting format. With an aim to make the tough rally more accessible for regular enthusiasts, the event followed a flexi-route format.
Two overall legs were planned, with Delhi to Jaisalmer (Xplore Dawn) being the first and Jaisalmer to Jodhpur (Xplore Dusk) being the other. Both being independent legs, the Xplore rally was effectively a three-day affair – the shorter length demanding lesser commitment and attracting the more enthusiasts to get their first taste of competitive rallying.
However, the competition in Xplore was anything but casual, the teams having a close fight for the length of the rally with several changes in the running order. In the end, it was Pratap and his navigator T Nagarajan who fought their way to the top of the timesheets in Xplore, with Rajesh Chalana and Arindam Ghosh finishing runner-up. Team Maruti’s Karthick Maruthi and S Shankar Anand rounded off the podium.
MARUTI SUZUKI DESERT STORM 2016
03 APRIL – 10 APRIL
DELHI – JODHPUR
1. SURESH RANA/ A NAIK GRAND VITARA 12:52:03 HRS
2. AMANPREET AHLUWALIA/ V KASHYAP GYPSY 14:02:11 HRS
3. NIJU PADIA/ N MEHTA PAJERO SPORT 14:05:41 HRS
1. SK AJGAR/ MKM MUSTHAFA GRAND VITARA 00:23:12 HRS
2. VISHNU SINGH/ A ANTHONY GYPSY 00:42:13 HRS
3. JAGMEET GILL/ C SEN GRAND VITARA 00:58:06 HRS
1. PRATAP/T NAGARAJAN SWIFT 00:02:01 HRS
2. RAJESH CHALANA/ A GHOSH S CROSS 00:03:20 HRS
3. KARTHICK MARUTHI/ SS ANAND VITARA BREZZA 00:03:39 HRS
1. CS SANTOSH SUZUKI RMZ 450Z 11:19:28 HRS
2. ARAVIND KP TVS RTR 450 11:28:06 HRS
3. R NATARAJ TVS RTR 450 12:35:30 HRS