India’s leading rider, when it comes to cross country rallying, C.S. Santosh, is gearing up for his sixth appearance at the Dakar, considered to be the toughest motorsport event in the world. The Bengaluru boy, now a part of team Hero Motosports, sat down with Guardian 20 looking ahead to the event which, after spending decades in Europe, Africa and South America, is moving to a new venue next month, Saudi Arabia.
Q. This is your fourth Dakar rally with Hero Motosports. How do you look back on the last three years and what has been the learning?
A. In the last three years if I have to plot a graph on how things have gone they’ve gone up, up and up so it’s progress for me over the years. The time I spend with the team, doing races and training, has helped me gain a larger experience and I think I’ve been able to use that experience to cash in on better performance over the years. This year has been my best as I’ve had a good Desert Storm, I was competitive in Pan Africa (Morocco) where I put a really good rally together and also not to forget Baja Spain where I got a top ten finish.
Q. What is it that makes Dakar so special? Why is it top priority for every rally driver/rider in the world?
A. For all of us who are competing, it is the biggest motorsport event where we aspire to do well. It’s also one of those races that attract the best talent from across the world. All the other rallies in comparison are much smaller. They’re usually five-day events but for the Dakar we have a 12-day race and one day rest in between, so 13 days of pretty much being on the road. There’s so much that happens every day. There are so many variables, which you have to adapt to and try to be a good rally rider.
Q. Give us an idea of the scale of the Dakar. What sort of thoughts do you get there a few days ahead of the event?
A. You’ll realise the scale of the event and the magnitude of Dakar when you actually land up there. You need to see the number of teams, the number of nationalities that are competing, the size of the teams, the kind of participants who are there from a privateer with a small box to the guys with the big trucks and Motor homes. So we have a huge graph of people who are there at the Dakar. Also, the Dakar is a race where you just can’t take it easy right from the first day. Everybody is on it because they know this is their time to shine and that keeps all participants on their toes.
Q. This year we move to a new venue (Saudi Arabia). What do you know about the challenges that lie ahead in the Kingdom?
A. Well, the only Saudi experience I have is watching Dakar’s footage of the recce. So from what I can see it looks like it’s going to be a really big desert and for us I don’t think it’s going to be that much alien. We have raced in South America in Bolivia, where there is lot of vegetation and tracks but then when you go to Argentina there are tracks but you also have open desert and then Peru is only sand. We have experienced a lot of different terrains in South America but in Saudi Arabia it’s going to be just one big Desert.
Q. How big a challenge will navigation be, especially in a desert country?
A. Navigation is a challenge if you want to do well in a rally. You have to understand the road book a lot better and have a lot more confidence in the ability. There will be days that are tricky. You need to know exactly where you are at that point in time and to be able to find your way. I have made some navigation mistakes over the years in which I’ve crashed out. Last year, I misinterpreted a double caution that cost me the rally so my understanding of the road book is a lot better this year and I have a lot more trust in my ability.
Q. Because of the new venue, have you made any changes to the bike?
A. This year I have my own suspension settings, usually I used to copy what the top guy used to do like Joaquim Rodrigues for me was the benchmark. He is of course a rider who has a lot more speed than I have and for me it wouldn’t work. So this year I’ll have a setting that’s going to work for me and that has helped me build that confidence to do well.
Q. How has team Hero Motosports helped in your career growth as a rally rider?
A. Hero has always listened to the riders helping them achieve what they want to do. I wanted to spend more time on the rally bike, in the desert because I don’t have the experience like my teammates. They all come with lot more experience, and I think with more races that I do and the more trainings that I do, it will definitely help in my performance.
The 42nd edition of the Dakar Rally begins in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 5 January 2020