In the high octane world of motorsport, rallying has always held a special place. While track racing packages and polishes the sport for viewing pleasure, rallying has remained true to the basics. It is raw and primal in its very essence. Rally drivers, often hailed as the most 'badass' versions of racers, amplify this spirit. Unfortunately, thanks to a curious combination of circumstances and format limitations, rallying has not captures mass eyeballs like other forms of motorsport. Even so, perhaps that is where its charm lies, a world of passionate racers who brave it out in au naturel conditions, like no one's watching.
In the world of rallying in India, the foremost name is VR Naren Kumar, the country's most successful rally car driver. Naren, who has won seven national titles (the highest for any Indian till date) has been an icon in the world of Indian rallying during the 1990s and 2000s. He was the first Indian ever to race in the prestigious Production World Rally Championship when he drove for Team SIDVIN India in 2008 " a feat that could sort of be equalled to Narain Karthikeyan being the first Indian to race in Formula 1. In fact, motorsport fans back then often enjoyed 'Naren and Narain' discussions (similar to the Sania and Saina discussions that would follow some decades later). What added to the delight was that both the racing prodigies hailed from Coimbatore.
Firstpost had the opportunity to chat exclusively with Naren on the heyday of rallying in India, his illustrious career, how the sport of rallying has evolved and of course, the impact of technology on motorsport, in terms of driver performance and the electrification of power.
The beginning: becoming a rally driver
When Naren launched his rallying career, the sport was in its absolute nascency in India. Even so, Naren decided to follow his dream. He shares, "My early interest in rallying was triggered by my uncle, who was a rally driver himself. At first, my parents weren't most supportive of my decision to pursue a career in rallying. It was seen as glamorous, but dangerous too, because it is. Over time, they understood my motives and ended up being my strongest supporters. In fact, my dad agreed to sponsor my racing career for two years." With reference to the larger society, Naren adds, "That the reactions were positive but further improved as the results came in."
Given that today's motorsport has increased involvement from car manufacturers, a far more set ladder to race in top-flight series and higher social acceptance, is it easier for racers of this generation? "The support does seem much more these days, the structure seems better, but it is never easier. Motorsport is always expensive. Back in the days, it was cheaper, but relatively still expensive. I was lucky to be chosen by MRF early in my career," Naren said.
An era of intense competition
Exciting competition forms the pulse of motorsport, and rallying in the 1990s offered exactly that through the intense rivalry between two well-known tyres manufacturers, JK Tyres and MRF. Naren, who tasted success in the Indian National Rally Championships with both the tyre manufacturers, says, "The current days (of rallying) are nowhere close to those. The (JK-MRF) rivalry raised the profile of the sport, the competition, the investments and the awareness. JK decided to field a World Champion driver, Karamjit Singh (2002, Production World Rally Champion) to try and beat us (MRF) in competition." For those who grew up following the sport in the 90s and 2000s, the JK-MRF rivalry was one of the headlines that dominated the news coverage for Indian motorsport.
Naren also believes that the overall field was far more competitive in his times, than is currently the case, expressing, "We had 20 drivers who could challenge for a win on their given day. That isn't the case any more."
The impact of technology
A major evolution in motorsport has been galvanised by the advent of technology. "We definitely didn't have as much technological influence throughout my entire career journey. For example, there were no simulators for training. Of course, simulators are predominantly used for track racing and not as much for rallying, it is difficult to simulate conditions." Has technology taken away from the importance of driver talent? Naren doesn't think so, saying, "I believe technology is tilting the balance between the driver skills and machine. But, I still think that there is no substitute for real talent, one still needs to be quick in order to achieve success in racing."
Only a few days ago, the World Rally Championship confirmed the introduction of hybrid/electric power come 2022. Naren is staunch in his support for the decision, saying, "I believe that green mobility is the future " whether it is electric or some other form of power. This would mean that sooner or later, motorsport will follow suit too. If racing can be enjoyed by keeping the planet green, then why not. Look at the Tesla, they have already proved how fast electric cars can go."
Media coverage, then and now
Despite the media explosion in the recent times, Naren highlights how current day rallying receives far lesser coverage than what the sport enjoyed in the past. He exclaims, "Back in our days, our rallies were shown on Star Sports. The media coverage across mainstream media was significantly higher then." He adds, "I wish social media had existed in my time, it would have been a game changer."
The case of rallying today
It is difficult to say whether the decline in media coverage that Naren mentions is a symptom or a cause, however, rallying has lost its erstwhile spot in the sun. "I am not pleased with how rallying has evolved in India over the last decade," Naren says. He believes that lack of talent and infrastructure are major roadblocks, explaining, "There are less than a handful of names who can win stages and rallies, we need more talent to come through. I believe on the organisation front too, there are lack of roads for the organisers to host their rallies at. There can be better coordination and involvement from the federation to improve the overall show for rallying in India, one that could appeal to viewers, manufacturers and participants alike."
Naren's assessment of the state of rallying in India isn't incorrect. In fact, it could be extended to Indian motorsport in an overall sense. Back in the days, other sports would have envied the sort of following and attendance that motorsport events could attract. There were easily 50,000-60,000 spectators attending the races at Sholavaram in the 1990s, a number that Formula 1 struggled to attract after the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011. Given this context, would Motorsport administration appeal to Naren? He admits, "Given the time and chance, I wouldn't mind working closely with the federation to rebuild the sport."
Naren may have influenced and inspired many aspiring racers with his success, but to him, rallying remains very personal. He signs off, "I always drove for the sheer joy of rallying. I drove for myself. My PWRC days of racing were the highlight. It might not prove anything to anyone else, but managing to lap in the top-3 in a few stages was enough of a confirmation to me about my talent and capabilities behind the wheel in the international world of rallying."