Gaurav Gill gears up to defend his title. Meanwhile, two of the youngest rally drivers in the country look forward to the 2014 season, and we browse through the country’s best rally cars.
Man of the hour
Rally racers may not be as popular as the track racers who have represented the country, but Gaurav Gill is the first Indian to win the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) with Team MRF Skoda last year. The racer from New Delhi, who learnt to drive when he was just nine, tested for the JK Tyre rally team as soon as he turned 18, and has not looked back since. “My uncle told me that if you had good car control, you could be a good rally driver.
So I practised a lot,” says Gill, referring to his uncle Dicky Gill, who was also a rally racer for two decades. His first win was at the South India Rally, where he came in overall third, but won in his category. “It was at the Chennai track,” says Gill, who was also a national level tennis player and bike racer before he took up cars. “The city is special to me. I met Shilpa (his wife) there,” adds Gill, who has his hands full with his car care store, writing a column for a magazine, and looking after his two-year-old son, Aryan.
More on him and the sport:
Fitness: We drive 12-14 hours a day. This requires a lot of endurance training. I don’t work out in the gym. I do TRX training and CrossFit training, which are newer forms of body function training that use your own body weight. They are high intensity workouts and can be done in 30-40 minutes. I work out four times a week.
APRC stages: The APRC is the toughest because of the conditions — from super smooth roads in New Zealand to rocky, slippery terrain in New Caledonia. The Australian rally is through forests and the Japanese is the most enjoyable — mountain stages with lots of drifts. Malaysia is famous for its palm oil plantations — you are literally driving on moss there, and cannot apply the brakes. You have to rely on engine braking, and in-car temperatures can go up to 60° there. China is rocky, twisty and mountainous with 1,000 corners and around 3,000 gear changes.
Indian rally stages: India has beautiful terrain. We’ve had a lot of championships in the mountains of Himachal and Chandigarh. There’s also the ghats of Nashik and the mines of Karnataka. Further down, Kerala has beautiful stages near Munar. And how can I forget the windmills near Coimbatore (Palladam)? The tea estates of Chikmagalur qualified as an Asia zone last year. It will be great to see the APRC happen there.
The pace note system: I had the biggest crash of my career because I got the pace note system wrong. This is a numeric system that is created by the rally driver. We do two reconnaissance runs during which the driver instructs his co-driver on angles of turns, corners, etc. So while racing, if the co-driver calls out a ‘4R’, it would refer to the severity of the upcoming right corner. This is the only system we have.
Advice to newcomers: You can’t rally stock cars. They need to have a roll cage and good suspension — poor suspension can make even the best driver look bad. Only then comes the engine.
Favourite wheels: I own a BMW 5 Series. I swear by BMW — nothing else does it for me. It is a drivers car with good handling more power, and looks good too.
Fans: The Japanese have amazing passion for the sport. The kids make collages of their heroes and last year, I came across a Japanese fan who made miniature replicas of my Skoda and got me to sign it. He has a collection of these.
The head start
As any motorsport expert will tell you, age can be a vital factor in making champions. Especially in a country like ours, where it can take years of hard work before a talent can get the right kind of recognition and sponsorship to compete internationally. Aspirants are aware of this today, and sign up for racing as soon as they turn 18.
At 25, Karna Kadur has entered 16 rallies, won 12, had three podium finishes and toppled his car once. “That was in Nashik in 2010. It was my first race with the Cedia and I did not have one of the bumps on my pace notes,” recalls the youngster from Bangalore. Encouraged by his father, Prakash Kadur, sister Vydhehi Kadur and cousins Sandeep and Sandesh Kadur — all racers themselves — he entered his first rally in 2009 and won the junior cup of the INRC that year. He has been with Bangalore-based tuners Red Rooster Racing since. “Tuning was something I was always interested in.And the more technical knowledge you have, the better you can drive,” says Kadur, who is one of the few rally drivers who double as tuner. “Getting a Cedia race-ready can cost around `15 lakhs. You need to go in for a suspension worth at least `7 lakhs to be able to compete,” shares Kadur, who hopes to get back in the drivers seat this year, after a year off in 2013. “If not in the first race, I hope to join at least from the second race in Coimbatore,” he signs off.
His parents Austin and Jacintha Mascarenhas were a rally driver and motocross racer respectively. So you will understand that this Mangalore lad, now 20, has been biking since 12 and rallying since 18. In his 2011 debut, he drove four rounds of the Indian National Rally Championship (INRC) and won three of them. Mascarenhas, who won Most Promising Young Driver at the Coffee Day Rally (Chikmagalur) in 2012, has entered 11 INRC races and won seven (four first places). “I am not the fastest, but I hope to be someday. There’s not much pressure and I am confident because I match the pace of the other drivers — except Gill of course, he is way too fast,” laughs the final year B Com student of St Aloysius College, who is looking forward to the INRC 2014 that starts in July. “Stamina and good reflexes are a must to rally, so I do a lot of endurance training. Ranjith Ballal who prepares my cars, other racers like Leela Krishnan, and my dad, all give me pointers for my races,” says the youngster who dreams of driving a WRC Polo someday. “It has about 315bhp, versus the 110bhp of the Polo I drove last year.”
Choose your wheels
Cars that are used for rallying internationally are completely different from the road going car. Except the basic shell that is reinforced and other external body parts, everything else is purpose-built for rallying. In India, the cars used are slightly modified road cars. Halley Prabhakar rounds up the most popular ones used in rallying today:
Maruti Suzuki Esteem
The Esteem was launched two decades ago and is still used in various forms of Motorsport. Since it is light weight and features a reliable 1.3-litre engine, it is ideal for rallying. The car even features an independent rear suspension, a feature not seen in more expensive road cars these days.
Maruti Suzuki Gypsy
This off-roader has been around for almost three decades. The vehicle is still in production and is one of the most popular Indian rally cars ever. Initially powered by a 1.0-litre petrol motor, the Gypsy was later upgraded and featured the 1,300cc engine used in the Esteem. This increased power considerably and has helped it win rallies, including the world’s highest rally, the Raid De Himalaya.
Mahindra XUV 500
This is the first Indian SUV that makes its way into the INRC. The all-wheel drive vehicle has performed well in the Desert Storm rally as well. Though not yet homologated it will soon star in the SUV class in the INRC. In the unrestricted class in 2013, the modified rally XUV even went on to beat a few fast rally cars. It is also one of the few diesel rally machines in India.
Honda City VTEC
The first generation Honda City VTEC is the only Honda that has been used in rallying. The powerful 1.5-litre VTEC engine helped it destroy competition and as a result, the Team MRF City VTECs won three National Championships consecutively from 2001 to 2003 without any manufacturer support. The car is known for its low weight and strong drivetrain and also features independent rear suspension.
Maruti Suzuki Baleno
The Baleno is ideal for competitors upgrading from an Esteem. It features a more powerful 1.6-litre engine, better high speed handling and independent rear suspension. The car has claimed a number of National Championships and used not just by privateers but rally teams as well.
The Cedia features a large 2000cc engine and a very capable chassis. It was the first non-Maruti Suzuki car used in rallying after a very long time. However, the road car didn’t sell high numbers in India and there is no manufacturer support, so finding spares is tough.
The Polo is the only hatchback seen in the rally grid. It was launched in India featuring a larger 1.6-litre motor and hence made it to rallying. Despite not featuring an independent rear suspension, the Indian Polo is known for its agility and impressive performance. Rally privateers and teams are slowly replacing the Baleno and even Cedias with Polos. Volkswagen even offers the car at a subsidised price to teams and individuals who wish to rally.