March 3, 2017 12:59:08 am
In a crowded elevator of a posh city hotel, CS Santosh and Gaurav Gill are busy haggling with each other. Santosh wants to start their gym session early, but the ‘fastest Indian on four wheels,’ as Gill is often monikered, hopes to snooze for a bit longer. Dressed in a red jumpsuit, Santosh is calm and relaxed, free of the heavy armour and protective padding required in the normal attire he’d need for his rallybike. It’s protection the only Indian to race, and finish, the Dakar Rally has learnt to live with.
For the past three years, he’s been featuring in the brutality that is the Dakar Rally, finishing it twice. Yet in Mumbai, he’s switched vehicles for the slightly less physically demanding Powerboat racing.
“Here I can stay in a nice hotel, wear this suit. The one I need for the rally has a lot of armour, the boots and the protection gear. It would be really uncomfortable. So this is a welcome change,” he says.
Since debuting at the prestigious South American rally in 2015, the 33-year-old has trained himself to work his way through the unknown terrain of the 9000 km course that runs through Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. From tackling sand dunes of the Atacama, to the rocky terrain of the Andes, to slushy riverbeds, Santosh has jumped into a new surface altogether.
For over a week, the swash of water along Marine Drive has been decorated with buoys, strategically placed to mark a course 5.2 km in length. Starting Friday, Santosh will be piloting a 28 foot long, 250 horsepower ‘Panther’ Powerboat. “From motorcycles, to sit in a boat, where everything is equal, it’s a huge change. Still, boat handling goes from knowing how to handle it to absolute s**t if you’re in bad waters,” he adds.
Back in November, just two months before he competed in his third Dakar Rally, Santosh and Gill travelled to England for 10 days to learn the art of powerboat racing under the tutelage of seven-time world champion Neil Holmes.
“Unlike racing or rallying, the water moves. It could be following you, going sideways, so everytime you come by the same corner, the boat can be 20 feet on either side. And there are no brakes on the boat, so you have to judge how much speed you have going into a corner,” says Gill, the only Indian to win the Asia-Pacific Rally, and a two time Asia-Pacific-Rally Championship winner.
Still, Powerboat racing involves a top speed far lower than what Santosh and Gill are used to on bikes and cars respectively. In fact, while rally cars frequently touch the 200 kmph mark, Powerboats average a rough speed of just under 100 kmph, due to the course.
Yet the slower speed presents a challenge itself when it comes to driving a boat through water. “Going at 100 kmph in water is like driving on rocky terrain at that same speed, through heavy rainfall in a car without wipers,” explains Kevin Burdock, who was navigator to John Donnelly when the pair set the world record speed of 107.69 kmph.
It’s a set of conditions Santosh will have to tackle during the weekend, especially on the finals on Sunday, when he will have to pilot the 1,650 kg boat around 20 laps of the course drawn up along the Marine Drive promenade. “Motorcycles are very dynamic, unlike cars or boats where you are sitting in a fixed position. But one of my strengths has been to adapt quickly to conditions. I was able to do that and understand what it took to go fast in a boat as well,” he says.
One thing Santosh doesn’t have to worry about is the course for the race. Unlike at the Dakar Rally, where riders often lose track, the Bangalore lad will have a navigator – 2015 P1 Championship winner Martin Robinson – to assist him. Along with the red and yellow buoys.
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