Death and motorsports are inseparable. There are no fool-proof safety features that will totally eliminate fatality in the sport, for such is the nature of the activity. These thoughts flashed through my mind when I learnt of the two deaths in the Mughal Rally hosted by the J and K government as part of its tourism initiative.
Both the driver (Jitender Shukla) and his navigator (Ashish Mahajan) were in their ‘30s. They rolled their Thar vehicle down a mountainside while negotiating a hair-pin, just about two Kms from the finish. Shukla was killed on the spot while Mahajan succumbed to injuries 48 hours later.
The reaction in the motorsport circles was typical. A lot of breast beating, calls for more stringent safety features, and what have you. The point everyone missed was the responsibility of the organizers to ensure a reasonably safe passage without removing the thrill of rallying which is a combination of speed and danger. It is a very delicate balance to strike, but certainly not impossible.
The Mughal Rally accident occurred at the end of a long day of driving covering some 600 Kms. That is a massive stretch to drive even with breaks, much less in a competitive environment in which Shukla and Mahajan drove. One cannot discount fatigue factor besides wear and tear of the vehicle, especially the brakes that would have taken a pounding given the mountainous terrain.
The point is that the organizers should have factored in these elements while planning the event rather than chart such a punishing schedule just to inject an element of “toughness”. In India, most organizers of long distance rallies rarely take into account the driving ability of amateurs participating in the endurance category that do not require vehicles in rally trim (roll cage and such safety features). As such, it is a recipe for disaster.
Back in 2011, I followed the Desert Storm Rally that covers some 3,500 Kms in five days. We had this run on the first day covering some 350 Kms from Ahmedabad to a spot near Bhuj followed by a 100-plus Kms of off-road run through the night. Even the veteran rally drivers found it very taxing, not to mention the risk factor.
Likewise, in April this year, I went along the Dakshin Dare Rally. As the name suggests, the route took us through Kodagu, Kerala and Coimbatore before finishing in Bangalore after covering some 2500 Kms over four days.
There was this situation in Waynad where the route was downright treacherous with steep gradients, u-bends and rocky surface. One of the riders crashed while negotiating a downhill stretch with a hairpin turn at the end of it. There was hardly any traction and no restraining wall or a barrier on the edge of the road. The competitors refused to do a repeat run in view of the dangers and the organizers wisely cancelled the section much to everyone’s relief.
In the case of Mughal Rally, there have been reports of organizers overlooking some safety aspects just to cut costs and if there is any truth in it, then the sport’s national governing body FMSCI should initiate punitive steps. After all, the same organizers conduct the country’s toughest event, the Raid de Himalaya that has earned its share of notoriety as also fame besides claiming victims.
At the moment, there are more motorsport events being held across the country than at any time in the past. There have been horror stories of events conducted with bare minimum safety, either to the spectators or the competitors. As such, it is incumbent on the FMSCI to scrutinize the antecedents of applicants before handing out permits.
While granting that you cannot totally eliminate the inherent dangers of rallying, there is sufficient scope to make the event safer. It is all fine to boast about having the longest run in a day and such, but the organizers need to apply common sense and make allowance for the human factors like fatigue. At the end of the day, the competitors are putting their lives on the line and that has to be respected.
In India, there is insufficient emphasis on safety and it is a wonder that motorsport has not claimed more lives than it has in our country. The two deaths in the Mughal Rally hopefully will serve as a wake-up call for not just the organizers, but also the governing body.