“5 left into 4 right cut, commit over crest.” We are at the Rally of Maharashtra, the fastest on the calendar, narrow broken tarmac stages snaking up the beautiful mountain ranges outside of Nashik. It’s my first national championship rally, a lifelong dream finally coming to something – and we are horribly underprepared. My suits and helmet reached me at 4am. I’ve done zero testing. I know precisely jack shit about rally driving – no technique, no craft, no setup. Most of the time, I’m not even listening to my co-driver’s pace notes. Things are happening so fast that my brain is two corners behind. I’m out of my depth. “Commit!” stresses Nikhil, pointing to the corner for added measure. The road goes straight over a blind crest and takes a 75-degree right hander. However, if you turn right just before the crest and keep it to the right, muscling the steering as the car takes off and gets all unsettled over the grassy verge, you completely cut out the corner. “Get it right and you deserve to be on the podium”, says Nikhil, who has been on the podium with many a champion driver.
I’m scared. There’s a sheer drop on the right, a rock face on the left and you can’t see what’s over the crest. I just have to trust Nikhil completely; this is what it all boils down to, when you man up and grow a pair. Boom! The Mitsubishi Cedia gets completely airborne and there’s a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. I land on the grass, fight the steering, accelerator still pinned and the corner is done. I scream into the intercom – my first jump in a rally car, a full-commitment jump on the top of a mountain. The stage time comes, and it’s almost a minute quicker than my previous run. I finish the rally on the podium – a debut podium! I doubt substance abuse can give you such a high.
I started rallying in 2003, when I took a Maruti-Suzuki Alto to the Raid de Himalaya and won the class. That was the Reliability Trial, open to bog-stock road cars; in proper rallying, you need a full-blown rally car. It starts with the roll-cage, literally a cage made of out steel pipes that runs through the inside of the car. If you fly into a tree or roll down a cliff, the roll cage makes sure that the passenger cell remains intact and nothing caves in – it is what keeps us alive, because we crash rather too often. To put in the roll cage, the car is completely stripped, and while we are at it, every seam is re-welded and strengthened to increase torsional rigidity. Rally cars don’t have air conditioning, but I’m sure you know that. Instead, we get roof scoops that direct some air into the cabin, to offer some relief as cabin temperatures soar to 65 degrees (with 90 per cent humidity, as we experienced during a rally in Chennai).
My national championship rallying started with the Mitsubishi Cedia, which is a fantastic base for a rally car. Group N specifications don’t allow much modification to the engine, to keep costs in check, so the best we got was a 15 per cent increase in power and torque from the Race Dynamics ECU and new intakes and exhausts. What really makes a difference is the suspension – I ran Reiger units, made in the Netherlands, a pair of which costs more than the car itself. These dampers are 3-way adjustable and give the rally car its performance, allowing it to take off over crests at 150 kph and land without breaking the mounts, and to go round corners and find grip and traction.
After two seasons with the Cedia, my team and I – Rohan, Byram, Aniruddha and myself – set up our own team, Slideways Industries, and partnered with Volkswagen Motorsport to build the first VW Polo rally car in the country. Compared to the Cedia, the Polo is smaller, which makes it more manoeuvrable and quicker on the tighter stages. It also has shorter gear ratios, so it accelerates as quickly and is more torquey, despite having a 1.6-litre engine to the Cedia’s 2-litre unit. On the fast stuff, the Cedia’s platform (which it shares with the legendary Evolution all-wheel-drive rally cars) makes it nimbler, more planted over bumps and more stable, so over the season, the performance of the two cars kind of equals out. But at least with the Polo, we have support from the factory, so spares, engines, gearboxes et al are all easily available.
Welcome to the world of rallying
In track racing, you have run-offs and tyre barriers; in rallying you have trees, and trees are notorious for not bending. In a rally, it’s just you, your co-driver and your car against the clock. For the six to ten minutes that a stage takes, you’re in a zone, driving out of your skin. When I started, I thought rallying was all about big balls, but having then practised with some of the best drivers in the business, I can tell you it is about technique – how to use your left foot to brake, how to throw a car sideways and hold it in a slide, how to make the most of the tyres, how one small change in the damper settings can change the attitude of the car, how to back off and take what you have, rather than go all out and risk breaking the car and, most importantly, how to drive to the notes.
The day before the rally, we drive the stages in a normal road car to make notes, in what is called the recce. This is a description of each and every corner, every bump, every straight, every crest, every hidden stone in corners that you can cut, every corner that you should not cut, and the co-driver then reads it all out to the driver during the actual rally. It’s all shorthand: 5 left into 4 right means an 80-degree left hander followed by a 20 meter straight and then a 75 degree right hander. It means, in the rally, the driver doesn’t wait to see which way the corner is going; he just knows, way before he gets to the corner, which way it will be going and adjusts his speed, steering angle and car setup for it. Rally driving is an art that is not just about car control, but about understanding the mechanicals, how one click on the suspension setting can alter the attitude of the car on the limit. And you have to be brave.
The highs and the lows
Winning a rally is the best feeling in the world, but invariably it is followed by such crushing disappointment that you vow to stop wasting all that money and call it quits. I nearly did, in my second season. Four rallies in and I was fighting for the Group N championship with some top-class competition. I would have been in the lead, but poor car preparation had every single engine and gearbox mount breaking in the second round. While I was in the lead. On my birthday. The mechanics, who were driving my car back from the Chikmagalur rally, then went head on into another car. That was that for my Cedia – it was rebuilt, but it would never be the same again.
In 2013, the pendulum swung the other way. In our first year with the Polo, at the first rally in Chennai, with a completely untested car, on the wrong dampers, with no time to prepare and against all the odds, I won my class and took the Polo to its very first win, on debut, in India. All season long, I battled with fellow rallyist Arjun Aroor for the championship and ended up second, which was great, because there’s no harm being bested by a better driver with better equipment.
In the very next season, I had my chance to fight for the championship, but my car just refused to bring itself to the finish line. Either it was the brakes, or the engine heating up or the driveshaft falling off – at every rally, Nikhil would fling his helmet, screaming “There goes our rally, there goes our championship!” After three rallies, I said “Fuck it” and decided to accept invitations to fly business class to exotic locations around the world, to drive fancy cars.
And then, last month, I spent three days driving an Audi S5 on a frozen lake in Finland, and the dormant rallying bug woke up. This was a neat coincidence, because it was while driving another Audi on a frozen Swedish lake, in early 2010, that I decided to empty the bank balance and start rallying. Back then, I realised that with a bit of tuition, I could drift a car and pull off the Scandinavian flick, a classic rallying move. Last month, I realised just how much I missed rallying. No Ferrari, no Porsche, not even a Bugatti Veyron can give you the thrills that rallying can. It connects you with a community that absolutely loves cars, it makes you a better driver and, with nothing left to prove, it makes you a calmer driver on the road. Rallying was supposed to be a fun pastime, to blow off steam over seven weekends, but it turned into the most addictive thing I’ve ever done. Jumping a rally car, getting it sideways and completely crossed up, surviving several heart-in-mouth moments, barrelling down narrow lanes at ridiculous speeds… it’s the most fun I’ve had with my proverbials on. If I could offer you just one piece of advice, it would be this: do a season of rallying and knock it off your bucket list.
Oh, and when in doubt, it’s probably best to brake.