Sauna simulations and afternoon runs: How Gaurav Gill is gearing up for World Rally Championship

Shantanu Srivastava

What makes a champion? Obviously, there's that proverbial steel that forms their core, but what goes on in the laboratory where this steel is alloyed with skill?

Late Ramakant Achrekar would famously place a coin on the stumps as a reward to get Sachin Tendulkar out in nets; world champion PV Sindhu was goaded to scream her way out of her inherent shyness by Pullela Gopichand on the teeming courts of his training academy; Milkha Singh would run like a manic €" till he would throw up blood. For Gaurav Gill €" rallying his way towards that esteemed company €" resolve is strengthened in a sauna. Except, the 37-year-old trailblazer slips into his racing overalls while doing so. Or, when the mood hits him €" which is often €" he runs at 12 pm in blistering Delhi heat. Sweat is, literally and metaphorically, his driving force.

Gaurav Gill is a six-time INRC and three-time APRC champion. Image: Facebook

Gaurav Gill is a six-time INRC and three-time APRC champion. Image: Facebook

With his sharp features and impressive physique, Gill would pass off as a typical Delhi dude. It's only when the dude reveals his attitude €" to life and to his chosen sport €" that one truly realises that he is different. How different? Spinning-a-Maruti-Esteem-at-an Autocross-Rally-at-the-age-of-16 different. Rushing-over-gravel-and-tarmac-while-avoiding-trees-and-rocks-the-size-of-a-football-at-200kmph different, and surely, knowing-no-fear different. Crazy different. Different different.

"I am the only one of my type," he chuckles, and still, you struggle to spot a hint of cockiness in India's only Arjuna Award winner in motorsports. Here's what keeps him humble: He races time sitting in 65-degree heat, where his navigator's inputs and his own instincts separate him from a broken skull or a fractured spine.

"Darr gaye to marr gaye (You're dead if you are afraid)," he says with a wicked wink.

"Rallying is a very, very tricky sport. You have to be mentally very strong. When you are in the car, you are dealing with cabin temperature, the terrain which might change every kilometre, your co-driver who is giving you pace notes...all this while you are driving at extremely high speeds.

"You have to push yourself mentally, and the only way to train is to drive more. Unless you keep driving with your co-driver, you'll never learn. Having said that, there is no real way of learning; you are either born with it, or you are not." Different.

Mental toughness notwithstanding, motorsports is a test of human endurance, for it converts a simple (in)activity of sitting into a brutal test of stillness.

"It is physically a very demanding sport too, because a lot of G forces are acting on your body. It is all about endurance; you have to sit for hours and hours.

"During cross-country rallying, each tyre weighs 48 kg, so I have to make sure I have the strength to replace is perfectly inside two minutes. You don't need abs, but you have to be strong. Formula One drivers are very light; in comparison, we don't have to be very light, but we have to be very strong."

To keep his endurance up to the scratch, Gill does a lot of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), besides resorting to his dressed-up sauna sessions to simulate cabin temperature.

"Our racing suits are as thick as four layers of your denim," he explains with the sincerity of a scientist.

"Imagine wearing that while sitting in a sauna. As Indians, we are used to 40-degree heat, but imagine sitting in 65 degrees. I don't get as much exposure in rally cars as European guys, so I have to make the most of it in the desi way possible." That's giving-a-whole-new-definition-to-getting-hot-under-the-collar different.

Gill loses up to 7 kgs of his water weight in a race and gulps down 20 litres of water a day to maintain hydration.

"You have to drive for days through inclement weather. Nothing stops for you. You have to go through everything €" mountains, snow, ice, blizzard, sandstorm...you have to drive as fast as you can wherever you are.

"Rallying is about being there at the right second. If you are late by one minute at a checkpoint, you get penalties. So basically, it is not the competitor but the clock you are racing against first. You are racing against time all the time."

And so Gill drives. Through trees and boulders and rocks and rain; through doubts and defeats and cheers and pain. Along the bumpy, treacherous way, there are lessons on optimism to be had.

"If you are not positive in life, you'll never do well in this sport," he elaborates, and then proceeds to give another peek in his mindspace.

"In the last 2-3 years, I have gained the ability to detach my brain from speed. Velocity doesn't matter to my brain anymore. My eyes can slow down everything. So if I am doing 200 kmph, for me it is still 20. You understand?"

No, Mr Different.

Gill points at a stray candy wrapper and begins his explanation. "I can spot anything half the size of that wrapper while driving at 200 kmph on gravel, and I can avoid running into or over it. This is an ability that you start achieving and learning with age and experience, but as I said, you are either born with this ability or you are not."

Ironic, considering a high-speed mad dash in a high-temperature cauldron crystallises to this €" an ethereal, slow-motion showreel of dirt and survival. In India, safe to say, he is one of the select few blessed with that insane ability. Very few had it before him, and as Gill magnanimously hints, no one has it after him.

"I don't see a 'successor' coming anytime soon, because firstly, I am not done yet. Also, the next generation of racers are way off the world standard," he says.

Gill's 19-year-young romance with speed shows no signs of running out of steam, and yet, a move to Formula One never really crossed his mind. Reason? Formula One bores him. Of course.

"I've never thought of Formula One. I was always more keen on rallying because I saw the uncles in my family driving rally cars. This discipline of motorsports is very tough as compared to Formula One. I don't want to disrespect any sport, but racing is not for me. I get too bored. I look for bigger and more difficult adventure."

Last month's Arjuna Award has only intensified his need for speed, and yet, in the two-day period leading upto the official ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India's speed devil couldn't help but hit the reverse gear.

"Those two days were more of flashbacks of all these years of hardwork," he remembers.

"My mother and wife have been the biggest supporters in my career. When I was not doing very well, my wife gave me a lot of wisdom. I made friends with fellow Arjuna Awardees Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Simran Singh Shergill, and we all agreed that it is such an amazing feeling. You can't describe it unless you experience it. It doesn't hit you until after a few days, it is then that you realise what you have achieved."

Gill's Arjuna honour is also a recognition of rallying as a legitimate discipline, and the six-time Indian National Rally Champion (INRC) hopes that his award lifts the profile of the sport in the country. He suggests waiver of import duties for the equipment €" the way government did with shooting €" as a starting point to encourage middle-class families into the cost-intensive sport.

Gill's next pit stop is Marmaris in Turkey where he will compete in FIA World Rally Championship 2 (WRC 2) from 12-15 September. Having recently switched to JK Tyres, Gill will be riding a Ford R5. His current beast is an upgrade from what he drove at WRC last year, but the three-time Asia-Pacific Rally Champion will be able to test the new car and tyres only on Monday.

"Unfortunately, I haven't been able to test run the car yet, but I am confident of strong performance. Turkey is one of the most difficult and rough rallies in terms of weather and track. It will test my endurance, but I have been training hard to ensure I am right up there in terms of fitness. I set very high standards for myself, and I will be gunning for a top-five finish."

In Marmaris, Gill has been given an 'A' seeding which gives him the starting advantage and a clean road.

"'A' seeding is given to only 50-odd drivers in the world, and it means I'll start really high up in the order which helps me to have a clean road position. There will be 150 cars competing in this rally, and you don't want to be starting in the 70th or 80th position, because once you get there, you may have to drive over rocks the size of a soccer ball, sometimes at 200 kmph.

"I want to win a WRC, for sure. Going forward, the Dakar Rally is a bigger goal. I am not going to stop anytime soon. The good thing about rallying is that there are no age limits. As long as you are smart and sharp, you can compete, and a lot of riders become more consistent once they are 28-30 years old.

"If Floyd Mayweather can box till he is 39-40, there's no reason I can't go on. If you are getting older and slower, it is a different matter, but I don't think I'll ever go slow in my life!" Different as hell.

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