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Raising sand

From the sand dunes of Bikaner to the wet sand beds of the Gujarat coastline. From the inhospitable terrain of Adesar to the majestic medieval fort of Jaisalmer. From the rocky riverbeds to the city of palaces. Rallyists in the seventh edition of Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm will brave the mighty Thar and more, putting their four-wheel drives to the ultimate test of endurance.

         Traversing roughly 2600km through the interiors of Rajasthan and along the Gujarat coastline, Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm 09 promises a mixture of adventure and thrills as 170-odd participants – among them a fair contingent of women – navigate uncharted territory.

       Glimpses of the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm rally in 2008

         There are a number of firsts being registered by the six-day drive this year, which was flagged off at midnight from Shahpura on the Delhi-Jaipur highway on February 17. Most significantly, this is the first time that a motor rally in India will be conducted at night and participants will have to cross the semi-dry riverbeds on the Aravalli.

         As the contingent makes its way to Bikaner, teams will negotiate the treacherous stretch of sand dunes of Jaisalmer, which is where the four-wheel drive will first come into play. Next, the brave-hearts will have to face the rather inhospitable terrain of the Rann of Kutch at Adesar where the Small Rann meets the Great Rann in Gujarat. Here, drivers will have to sprint across the wet and dry sand along the Gujarat coastline, another first for any motor sport event in India. At Adesar, participants will be spending two nights in tent camps, very close to the India-Pakistan border. The rally will culminate in the city of palaces, Udaipur, where a grand prize distribution ceremony will await them.

The rally will run a mix of special stages to test the participants driving skills under various conditions. These include the Wild Cat drive, which is through leopard territory via a dry riverbed under the night sky. Back to School is a simple section through sandy farming country. The Redline Express involves running parallel to a train track and then suddenly turning into a sandy stretch. The Twilight Zone will be through sand dunes, while Dust to Glory is where even a seasoned rallyist can lose his way, leading to Ground Zero, where cars will have to take on lakes. The Tora Tora Tora stage will be right next to an Air Force practice range with a wrong turn putting the driver directly in the path of a plane! Bad Max is a freezing level where one has to cross an 80km riverbed. The Black Gold Special features a short and twisty special track, which snakes between two dunes to open on the National Highway. Forest and Furious is a scary drive through the forest while The Beach travels along the waves of the Arabian Sea. And finally, one in Sixty Seconds is a 75km dash on a flat horizon. If all this doesnt test endurance levels of the participants, nothing will.

Rallying rugged

Napasar, a sleepy hamlet near Bikaner, usually stirs to life only when politicians come calling prior to the elections. But now, chunav (elections) is still a few months away. So why the action? Bahut saare gaadi aa rahi hai (A lot of cars are coming),” exclaimed Puneet.

         As it turned out, the cars revving past were part of the Extreme category in the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm 2009, held from February 17 to 22. Puneet, all of eight years, who goes to a school nearby, knows nothing about rallies. But hes caught in the middle of it. He and his friends left their game of cricket to scramble all around the rally Stewart, who waits to note down the timings of the participants in this Time Speed Distance (TSD) rally. Yeh kya khel hain (Is this a game)?” Puneet asks.

Tough trails

Motor sport, unfortunately, is not very popular in the country and there is very little support for it,” said Raj Kapoor, president of Northern Motor sport, organizers of Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm 2009. Carmaker Maruti has supported this rally since its inception in 2003.

         Only those who dont care about their cars will put them through such torture,” said and observer as he watched an old Zen plough through the desert sand. Indeed, vehicles in the Storm were put through grueling stretches that tested the endurance of man and machine.

         Not without reason did Kapoor hazard a comparison between the Storm and the Dakar Rally – the toughest in the world. Northern Motor sport had the terrain: dirt tracks that are shunned even by bullock carts, dry river beds with pebbles the size of boulders, treacherous and dunes in which tyres sink with ease and wet beaches that look deceptively firm and beautiful.

Pros & cons

The rally for all categories had two parts – the transport section, which ran on the state highways and the competitive sections, which took rallies through the interiors of Rajasthan and Gujarat (the two states covered in this edition of the Storm). And there were four categories in which vehicles competed: Extreme for professionals, which had only Maruti Gypsies; Explore for amateurs that had a Toyota Corolla, a Scorpio, a Ford Endeavour, a Tavera, several Swifts and a Dune Buggy together with a fleet of Esteems. And Endure saw cars like Mitsubishi Pajero and Vitara. The Motoquad, the section for bikers, saw a couple of Polaris All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), a KTM LC4 and a Honda CRF among others.

Drive to a chill

But if Storm was about dirt tracks and sand dunes, it was also about luxury – at heritage hotels. Participants enjoyed the hospitality at Lakshmi Niwas Palace Hotel in Bikaner and Jawahar Niwas Hotel in Jaisalmer. Nursing a chilled beer in the grass courtyard of Lakshmi Niwas Palace was Sunny Sidhu, the defending champion of the Storm. With a comfortable lead of over an hour over his fellow rallyist Suresh Rana, who was running second then, Sidhu looked relaxed. I have been participating in all major rallies like the Autocross, the Indian National Rally Championship and the Himalayan Raid and the Desert Storm. The going has been good thus far,” he crossed his fingers. But fortunes change, and how!

Free falling

On the sand dunes of Jaisalmer, a fleet of media cars left while it was still dark, before the leg began. Called Observers’, the fleet had to reach the spots before the contestants, if they were to catch some action. On the way to Jaisalmer near Gajner, Esteem had its wheels dug deep into the sand dunes. Another Esteem was mired a few yards ahead. And caught up in the quagmire were the rest of the Explore participants as they waited for the tracks to clear. Storm officials arrived at the scene with rescue gear. The Esteems were gradually tugged out with retractable ropes.

Desolation row

As the vehicles crossed the legs of the Storm, the landscape changed from the dry sand dunes of Rajasthan to the rugged Rann of Kutch. The desolate and arid stretches gave way to lakes and salt mounds, and the challenge here was for the navigators to keep the vehicles on the rally route. Veer off too much and youd be on the wrong side of the Indo-Pak border, with the fencing just about 100 meters away from Adesar, where rallyists camped for the night under a starry sky braving freezing temperatures in their sleeping bags.

         But the high point of the Storm this year was the drive through the beaches at Kutch, along the gently lapping waves of the Arabian Sea. The trick here is to keep the tyre pressure at an optimum level and drive through with speed so that the tyres dont get stuck,” said Suresh Rana, the Storm challenger and the Himalayan Raid winner last year.

         By the time we reached Adesar, fortunes had changed for Sidhu. With a broken gearbox, he lost time to Rana, who made sure he never gave a chance to Sidhu again as he held on to his slender lead.