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To Dakar via sand dunes of Jaisalmer

Gaurav Bhatt: The two-day race, which kicked off on Friday, will cover 630 km including a 200 km liaison in Jaisalmer.

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INDIANEXPRESS: It’s not easy running an international off-road event in India and the organisers of the India Baja would be the first ones to tell you that. In only its sophomore year, the cross-country rally has procured the Dakar tag, becoming only the third feeder event to the mecca of off-road biking. The two-day race, which kicked off on Friday, will cover 630 km including a 200 km liaison in Jaisalmer.

To get the nod from Dakar, India Baja had to change its format. Instead of following the American Baja format, which allows bikers in the night, the organisers went for the FIM regulations that the Dakar observes. But while, establishing credibility with the global organisation was a big coup, matching its sheer scale remains a challenge too big.

“The red tape that is woven into our system makes a lot of things impossible, says Raj Kapoor, founder of the Northern Motorsport, a Noida-based club which put together the inaugural edition and has organised Desert Storm rally for the past 15 years. “The costs, regulations and permissions is a lot to handle for a small sporting club. Things that are the norm there… stuff that happens automatically take up hundreds of manpower for us. The laws of the country are not conducive to smooth functioning of such an event.”

One of the norm in question is the air-evacuation facility. Getting the permission to fly above the Thar desert is difficult, and “even if you somehow break through, you might not get permission to land somebody at a particular spot.”

In the absence of heli-evacs and satellite phones, safety measures in place include 4-wheel drive MIVs (Medical Intervention Vehicle) complete with doctors and spineboards as well as a tracker and a SOS switch monitored by the control centre.

The rally has also shifted from Bikaner to the bigger dunes of Jaisalmer, resulting in a switch from habitation every 5-10km to 100km long stages in the wilderness.

To further drive home the vulnerability quotient, the GPS system will not be mounted on the vehicle and competitors will have to use the once-redundant road book as the primary navigation system.

Those who prevail on the hostile terrain in the punishing April sun will get their due. While the winner in the four-wheeler category will get a free entry in the 2018 Desert Storm, the top rider gets a ticket to next month’s Merzouga Rally in Morocco and the 2018 Dakar Rally. Free entry to Merzouga and Dakar (the cost of which amounts to €20,000 or Rs 13.87 lakh) has attracted about 40 riders, including Hero Motorsports’ Portuguese rider Joaquim Rodrigues and TVS Racing’s Frenchman Adrian Metge, and the Indian field will be led by Aravind KP in absence of injured CS Santosh, last year’s winner.

While it has attracted riders, the Dakar label hasn’t amounted to much in terms of sponsorship.

“The support has frankly been disappointing. We hoped for sponsors considering the positioning the Dakar brand has,” said Raj. “Motorsport has never been able to become a mainstream sport with the general perception being it’s too distant a dream. Apart from some traditional partners, there has been no interest. We need to generate more hype because the general idea right now is “oh ye event ho gaya? We didn’t know about it.”

A lot depends on the success of the event. While it has already set European riders abuzz, India Baja’s growth will put the nation on the map of world motorsport.

“Indian motorsport has always been very inclusive. We don’t bring international talent and we don’t go abroad. We perceive something to be great without knowing the global standards,” said Raj, who won the Gypsy Class and finished second in the inaugural edition of the Raid de Himalaya in 1999. “There’s this small little pond of ours, and everyone is happy playing in it. We need to use this opportunity to further leverage some events.”

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