C.S. Santosh: Dreaming of Dakar
As he lines up at the Dakar Rally 2018 for the fourth time, C.S. Santosh, the only Indian to complete it, says he is chasing a Top 20 finish
“There’s a lie that all drivers tell themselves," says James Hunt (played by Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) in Ron Howard’s 2013 sports biographical movie Rush. “Death is something that happens to other people, and that’s how you find the courage to get in the car in the first place. The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel. But more powerful than fear itself, is the will to win."
These words by the late British Formula One (F1) world champion of 1976 summarize why racers of all kinds do what they do. For what else can explain reigning F1 champion Niki Lauda’s miraculous return to the Italian Grand Prix on 12 September, just six weeks after sustaining near-fatal injuries in the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1976.
Almost four decades later on another continent, C.S. Santosh experienced a similar reality check. A near-fatal fire accident at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge kept him out of racing for a good part of 2013. “I was the first Indian to debut at the World Cross-Country Rally Championship and was racing well. But that accident made me feel like it was all over," says Santosh. He didn’t quit, however, returning in 2014 with a new-found determination to conquer, one track at a time.
He won the Maruti Suzuki Desert Storm that year and finished in the top 10 at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
In 2015, Chunchunguppe Shivashankar Santosh, then 32, became the first Indian to participate in the Dakar Rally, arguably the most dangerous in the world, and even managed to complete it in his first attempt.
Organized by the Amaury Sport Organisation, the Dakar Rally, between Paris and Dakar, Senegal, started in 1978. When security issues in Mauritania led to the cancellation of the 2008 race, it was moved to South America. Riders have to cover 9,000km in 14 days—each day is a stage—at an average speed of over 100km/h in settings that keep changing, from river routes to rocky terrain to salt flats to desert dunes, sometimes all in one day, and in temperatures ranging from sub-zero to 45 degrees Celsius. Electronic navigation isn’t allowed, the drivers have to rely on the roadbook, a turn-by-turn guide to each day’s route. Barring their gear, this little scroll of paper is the most important object during the 14 days of the rally.
No wonder, then, that many riders fail even to finish all the stages. In the inaugural edition, only 74 out of 182 riders made it to the finish line. Last year, 220 vehicles—97 motorcycles, 22 quads, 63 cars and 38 trucks—out of the 318 that started the rally from Asunción, Paraguay, managed to finish. Around 70 people, many of them competitors, have died in the rally since 1978.
In an article for The Telegraph in 2015, adventure athlete Tobias Mews described the stages of the Dakar as a set from a Mad Max movie. “In shadowy corners, knackered drivers talked survival tactics with their team managers. You didn’t need to hear what they were saying. Their haggard, tired and grime ridden faces said it all," he wrote in the article.
Santosh was an adventure seeker even as a child. His bicycle, he says, first helped him explore his surroundings. And that hasn’t changed. He used to play badminton and tennis too, but wasn’t good at either, he admits.
After school, he got a TVS Shaolin for college, and it changed his life.
“I had never watched motorsport while growing up. Nobody in the family followed it. I only got interested in it after starting college. I was 17 then, I guess," Santosh says.
The lanky Bengalurean stands 6ft tall and weighs 77kg. He has been riding bikes in competitions for more than 12 years now.
He rode the Shaolin in his first racing competition. His parents supported him on the condition that he would finish his studies. He didn’t, dropping out of college after the second year. “My father did not speak with me for six months," he recalls. “But they came around when they realized that this is what I wanted to do."
They supported Santosh’s 2015 Dakar campaign and, along with some friends, raised the money required for the event. There were no sponsors. At least 15 potential sponsors were approached but none of them came forward to support except Red Bull, which provided on ground support during the rally.
“I was racing Supercross and Motocross championships in India and I had reached a stage where it did not excite me any more," says Santosh. “And there was talk of the Raid de Himalaya. People used to say that unless you did the Raid, your career is not complete. So I had to do it."
Santosh won the Raid de Himalaya, India’s toughest rally, in record time in his first attempt, in 2012. “I had told my parents that I’d hang up my boots after that," says Santosh. But the Raid led to a new series of events that eventually took him to Dakar.
It takes a year to prepare for Dakar, says Santosh, so the training is important. “There are long days out in deserts. We mostly race in deserts. It’s hot there and the surfaces are undulating," he says. Then there is weight training. It is not easy to manoeuvre the bike, which can weigh anywhere between 150kg and 180kg, depending on the fuel, at that high speed. So he hit the gym regularly. Running is another regular feature of the training regime. Apart from that, he watched online videos to prepare.
“But after a point, the videos started scaring me. People constantly spoke about how many things could go wrong. I got so scared that I stopped watching them," he says. “But once I was there, I knew I’d complete no matter what."
The rally is financially draining too, especially for a privateer—someone entering a racing event not directly supported by an automobile manufacturer. “From the visas to motorcycle registration to insurance to flight tickets, I had to take care of everything," he recalls. Participation cost Santosh about €100,000 (Rs75 lakh now). “And when you invest that kind of money, it is extremely important that you go there and at least finish the race," he says. “Make sure that you come back to the bivouac (the base camp for the teams) every night. That was the only standing instruction from the team," he says.
He managed that, finishing 36th overall even with broken toes, an injured shoulder and physical and mental fatigue.
At the start podium, Santosh remembers, he was asked to drape the tricolour. “I was thinking, no way it could be me. I was there just by default, representing a country," he says. “That was a heavy flag for me to bear."
For the first five-six days, he was off-colour. There was no rhythm and he was struggling. On Day 6, he crashed and broke his left toe. That was the day when he got worried for the first time.
On Day 9, during the Bolivia leg, the participants had to cross a salt flat, which was covered with water. Some 40 bikes couldn’t finish the stage (owing to the water, electrolysis of salt produces positive and negative ions, which can damage the battery of a bike). “I just hoped it doesn’t happen to me," he says. But it did. His bike refused to start. He could see his Dakar dream dying. “It took me close to an hour to figure out how to restart it. I found a spectator car and hot-wired my bike and it started," he says.
When he returned to the bivouac that evening, the Red Bull team cheered for him. “That day, I realized, I can actually do this. It was the turning point," he says.
Santosh hasn’t looked back. He finished 13th at the Baja Aragón in 2015, won the Desert Storm in India between 2014 and 2016, won the Indian Baja in 2016 and has participated in Dakar every year since 2015. He has inspired a new generation of riders. “I think the rallying scene has changed a lot since 2015," he says. “Desert storms and Raid de Himalaya are seeing better participation. Also, now, Dakar has a raid in India which is a feeder series. So that is a step in a positive direction."
In a boost to the sport, Hero MotoCorp entered the world of motorcycle rally racing, forming a strategic partnership with Speedbrain GmbH in 2016. “It was huge," says Santosh. “When one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world comes on board, it speaks about the huge potential in the market."
He is one of the two Indians participating in the 40th edition of the Dakar Rally that starts Saturday, riding for the Hero Motosports Team Rally alongside Portuguese Joaquim Rodrigues. K.P. Aravind who debuted at the Dakar last year but could not finish the rally, is the second Indian and part of the Sherco TVS team.
The route of the Dakar Rally, which changes depending on weather, climatic conditions and even geo-political reasons, includes Peru this year. Peru is making a comeback into the Dakar fold, hosting the event for the first time since 2013, and will hold the first six stages of the rally, which will then move to Bolivia before concluding in Argentina on 20 January.
Around 500 competitors from 60 countries will be taking part.
This year’s bike, he says, is an upgrade from last year’s in the sense that the fuel tank has moved from the rear to the centre of the bike, which means that fuel load is more centralized. “The bike is smaller, lighter and its centre of gravity is lower, which makes my job of racing the bike at high speed a lot safer," he says.
Santosh says the fear that keeps him awake at night is of not reaching his potential.
“Have you seen Cool Runnings?" he asks. “In 2015, I felt like the Jamaican national bobsleigh team making its debut at the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988."
“When I set out for Dakar in 2015, I was trying to prove myself and I still am. I am chasing the dream to earn people’s respect and I feel I am a little closer because I have had a good last year," he says.
“Now I want to finish in the top 20 at Dakar."