Sirish Chandran: My First Rally
5 left into 4 right commit over crest.” Grab third on exit of the left. Accelerator pinned to the bulkhead. Left foot hovering over the brake, just in case. A fleeting moment of indecision. Should I? Shouldn’t I? From behind the wheel all I see is the top of the crest. The notes say there’s a 4 right over the crest — that’s a second gear corner — but it’s a blind corner and if I get it wrong, or if my notes were wrong, I’ll be down the mountain. But this is also where we make time: Hug the inside, set the car up to kiss the outside just as we rise to the crest and she’ll fly over the crest completely cutting out the corner, getting a bit out of shape over the grass, joining tarmac and flat-out to the next corner. Nikhil says this is where we make up a s***load of time. He doesn’t say, if we pussyfoot we lose a s***load of time.
So I stay pinned. Eyeballs wide open in raw fear. My god, this is it. Let’s do it. Let’s jump. Let’s get some serious air.
Nothing prepares you for the first time you jump a rally car.
No amount of driving, track days, testing everything there is to be tested — including Ferraris, Lambos, Porsches, even the Veyron — many hours scaring myself silly in the saddles of superbikes, some big shunts; nothing prepares you for the first time you take off over a blind crest. For that split second, time seems to slow down. You savour the moment, relish it, there’s a silence, all that angry rally-car violence fades into the background, a smile, a strange calm, this is what it’s all about, why all that stress and effort was worth it.
You land: Softly, no scrunching of the bumper, accelerator floored, “80 8 right over crest,” line it up for the next jump.
This is the story of my rallying debut.
Maybe it’s my wife pointing out that I always tune off during F1 and watch YouTube rally clips instead. Or it’s the Raid de Himalaya trophy I won years ago that’s been giving me the stare every time I chuck my keys into it. Whatever. I realise that if I don’t do it now I’ll never be able to. It’s settled: I’m going rallying.
First the car. Rookies usually start with the carburetted Rally Star Cup Esteems (no matter how hard you drive them, they look slow) or Gypsys (impossible to drive, shake all your teeth out). Neither look very safe to crash in and I wasn’t keen on the (faster) fuel-injected Esteems and (much faster) Baleno — who wants to read about a car that stopped being sold years ago?
In any case, one of the reasons why I want to rally is so I can talk about it. And telling my colleagues abroad I’m rallying an 85-horsepower 1990s Suzuki Swift is quite pathetic. No, the only car to do it with is the Mitsubishi Cedia Sports (“yeah mate, I’m rallying a Mitsubishi”).
Next: Off to Red Rooster Performance in Bangalore, to prep my rally car. N. Leelakrishnan (“Leela” to friends) is the best tuner in the business; everybody swears by his cars: Set-up, reliability, speed, handling, everything.
Since I was an absolute rookie on a very tight budget, instead of the Group N+ class, we decided to run in the new Group N 2000cc class that doesn’t permit any (expensive) engine mods except for intakes, exhaust and a racing ECU. Rally-prepping a Group N Cedia costs around Rs. 2.5 lakh. And it’s a strong car so unless I have a big shunt, nothing will break or fail.
The other big expense in a rally programme is the equipment: Seats, harness, racing suits, helmets, intercom, etc. These cost almost as much as preparing a rally car itself. Our old friends at Methods Marketing stepped forward to supply us with the best Sparco gear. (Check out my flashy suit and red boots!). We also got Sidvin India and TSI Racing (the team that took Naren Kumar and Gaurav Gill to the Production World Rally Championship) to support our team.
Finally, the co-driver. I cannot begin to tell you how important a co-driver is: He makes one mistake, misses one call, and at best it will be the end of our rally. (If we go down the mountain, the end of our season. Or our necks.) You simply have to connect with him: For a week every month you spend every waking hour together; share a room, share a loo, share a car, share every meal. He’s your second wife. And Nikhil Pai is more meticulous and more organised than my wife.
Nikhil is hugely experienced, having co-driven for Vikram Mathias and, most recently, winning the 1400cc championship with Vikram Devadasen. His experience means I only have to concentrate on the driving; everything else (including a million forms) he takes care of.
Though the first round was postponed from May to June, it wasn’t enough. The only test I had was for a few hours, on dirt (for a tarmac rally!), in Karna Kadur’s old car. Zero testing in my own car. Not the best way to go into your first rally, which just happens to be the fastest, most unforgiving one on the calendar.