You know those irritating triple or quadruple speed-breaker strips that lie unmarked on our Indian highways? You’re merrily cruising along and all of a sudden, a genius road planner has decided to erect a mini Alpine range right there, unmarked, waiting for its prey. They’re known to break suspension components, backs and the cage inside which you were keeping your angry self. The point is, if you don’t like those, you’re better off not participating in what has become India’s biggest motorsports event — the Desert Storm 2011. Primarily because what you encounter for hours on end, for six days straight, is just that — arduous, spine-shattering terrain which you blast across or sometimes even trundle through, keeping a keen eye on the stopwatch, all for the holy grail — minimum penalties.
In its ninth edition this year, the Maruti-Suzuki Desert Storm was huge, with around 280 participants fielding vehicles that spanned the automotive spectrum. To give you an idea, there were two all-women teams in two Altos, a Yeti, lots of well-prepared Grand Vitaras, a couple of Pajeros and heck, even a Polaris quad bike! As for the rest of the field, there were more Gypsies here than there are at a gypsy music festival. It all began in the Rann of Kutch, a 28,000 sq km salt marsh of nothingness where you’d be lucky to see another living being in a day. And joy oh joy, we hit it late at night, with Rohin and I (a first-time navigator) marching on, right direction or not, in the fast 4x4 Time Speed Distance (TSD) class called ‘Ndure’.
We battle, against the terrain and the clock. I’m trying to decipher a tulip (pictorial directional sign), usually of a turn around a tree and a mound (just like the previous fifty tulips) in a Gypsy that’s juddering as if there’s a volcano underneath. Meanwhile, ‘El Captain’ kept up the pace like we were running late. The simple truth was that we had no clue. I can’t do fast, accurate math to save my life and our average speeds were way off, so finally we, along with a convoy of lost Gypsies following, finished the stage at some ungodly hour by crossing the line from the wrong side. The marshal’s expression made for a Kodak moment. A 10-minute penalty slap notwithstanding, we weren’t doing too bad. We were somewhere in the middle of the standings. The next day’s preparation took up most of our night and scarce amounts of sleep later, we rolled up to start a 300-km stage through the vast flats of the Rann. In the TSD format, this is by far the toughest and most exciting mathematics test ever devised.
The White Rann is your chance to go all out; you can call it a mini-Bonneville in India. The Xtreme guys rejoice, flying through stages at full clip. Running in the midst of this fast chaos, we come upon a Time Control (TC) where we are instructed to roll by. Not bothering much, we pass the TC, not realising that this will effectively put us far from a respectable position at the end of the day, but more on that later. Rohin was revelling in the driving pleasure that the Rann offers, while I was busy with a calculator, a stopwatch, a GPS, an average-speed chart, a road book and lots of ‘Five Star’ chocolate bars. Hey, we were slogging it out, all right? Anyway, we weren’t accurate down to the ten-tenths, but about 10-15 minutes of penalties away from perfection. Our stock Gypsy threw up some classic lightweight SUV moves, kicking its tail out ever so gently on the Kutch dirt, skiing along the slush and giving us every bit of power and fun it possibly could. The way it repeatedly took hard one-two punches would’ve put Mike Tyson to shame. We love that mountain goat, don’t we?
More TC confusion followed during the day and by the end of it, we learnt that we had an elephant-sized penalty waiting for us. Unfair? Oh yes. We hate to nag and crib about small errors and forgo them as human error, but we had to contest an hour’s penalty. It was to no avail. Not that we were gunning for gold, but right then and there, we were out of the whole competition business. But hey, what good is motoring if you miss out on the fun part? Chin up and smiles on the next morning, as 700 km to Jaisalmer via Ahmedabad awaited, more than 500 km of which were transport stages. To put it in a better way, from the Rann to the Thar desert! Yes, sand, shovels, dunes, camels, getting stuck, sweating buckets and all of that! Early stages were nothing spectacular, but the night stages in the deserts outside of Jaisalmer were challenging, especially since the long transport stages had caused fatigue to set in. The terrain is tricky — sand traps can eat you if you get out of line and the grit tracks can throw you off-line at speed. Coupled with the unachievable required speeds (69 kmph on tractor tracks?), the car took a beating and so did our front-left tyre which eventually gave way. No one, front-runne included, could hit the required speeds on that dusty moonless night and drop-outs were many.
All this action and it was only Day Four. On the way to Bikaner through the middle of the desert, we hit massive lake beds, the vastness and beauty of which left us speechless. It looked like one of those National Geographic Africa photographs. It’s a remote part of India that few get to see and we thanked Northern Motorsports for picking this route as we rolled along at a relaxed required speed, taking in the sights and loving the crispness of the February air. Of course, they couldn’t let us relax for too long, so they threw in a stage to test our patience — 14 km at 11-point-something kmph. Yes, 11. So you had this long queue of serious-looking rally machinery being overtaken by a granny on a Splendor with a cow tied to the back. Er, it wasn’t really so, but could well have been. As compensation, a marvellous sunset and light rain put up a spectacular sundown display, a fantastic setting for an enjoyable stage and the drive to Bikaner.
On the penultimate day, we hit two extremely sandy 100 km stages through the dunes, where the fun lay in the challenge itself. Back to Delhi after a tiring last night of driving, we finished the rally by opening a chilled bottle of… er, bottled water. We were getting better by the day and by the end, were getting it quite right. What I valued more than anything on my first rally was the chance to learn all you can on the go and the opportunity to see how good the best rally teams really are. The only problem is, I now guide Mumbai taxi drivers back home with a ‘200 metres… right and bump… crest… caution…’
The writer was on a media invite from Maruti-Suzuki India for the Desert Storm 2011