The Rainforest Challenge. As the name suggests, it is about driving through a rainforest in a car. As simple as it sounds, no factory car can possibly surmount the Special Stages (SS) laid out by the organisers. Your car needs a special set of skills, like scaling walls, sailing through water and in some cases flying as well. And for that, you need to build the machine within the rules and regulations prescribed for the event – a machine that can best be described as a monster on four wheels. So, when I flew to Goa to witness the RFC, I had very high hopes.
The Prologue had 12 Special Stages over two days with SS1 to SS6 on Day 1 and and SS7 to SS12 on Day 2. Considered as the shakedown or warm up for the RFC course, these stages were held in Dona Paula, in the outskirts of Panjim. Every sport grows big only when there is an audience and the location saw numerous spectators glued to the proceedings. If you thought the shakedown would be easy, you would be proved wrong, totally. The challenges were really tough, especially SS5 and SS6 on Day 1.
In SS6, you had to drop more than 10 feet into a canal with an artificial mud mound to assist you. While it may seem easy when straight, you had to do this while you turned right. Then through a waterlogged canal, you had to climb a similar height with hardly any space to manoeuvre yourself to position. The winches were out and drivers used engine power with assistance of the winch to pull themselves up the wall. Only a few could make it while others had to give up because they weren’t aligned right or their winch ropes snapped into two. We saw the jeeps breaking their drive-shafts, bending their steering rods in the quest to compete the stage.
The Force Motors duo of Tan/Tan and Merwyn/Hamizan started strong on Day 1 finishing first and second at the end of the first six stages of Prologue. Gurmeet/Kirpal from Gerrari and Cedric/Floyd from Goa were close behind the leaders. Day 2 saw Gurmeet/Kirpal taking the lead from Tan with Merwyn also being able to push ahead of Tan.
Predator and Terminator
Day 3 and Day 4 were held in the South Goan countryside near Quepem. The stages were laid out around a defunct red-stone quarry set in the picturesque country side painted lush green with the monsoons. The rains continued to play havoc on Day 3 through SS13 to SS18 while Day 4 (SS19 to SS24) had the sun beating down between showers. With the weather colluding with the organisers, the difficulty of the stages went up by quite a few notches. SS13 and SS14, the first two stages on Day Three were one of the toughest for the day with cars having to climb a steep rocky mountain slope after driving through a stream. Traction was difficult to find and the obstacles seemed unsurmountable.
The Rainforest Challengers braved the storm managed to reach the summit. They were battered and bruised but kept on tending their scars, repairing their cars for the next challenge. The navigators had a very important role to play. They had to guide the drivers to the easiest line across the obstacle. They had to run around the tricky terrain to make sure the winches were anchored right. They had to make sure it was safe for the driver, the car and themselves to rally along. And their speed and efficacy made the difference in the timings they set for the challenge. The fastest time for a stage got 100 points while the second fastest gets 95 and so on. Then you had penalties for unsafe handling of equipment, veering off track or breaking cones/bunting.
Tan improved his performance on Day 3 overtaking Merwyn for the second position while Gurmeet managed to hold on to a slender lead of 12 points after 18 stages and 1800 points to fight for. Kabir/Gagan, who moved from Gerrari to Force this year, performed well on Day 3 to jump three places to reach fourth overall. Day 4, the Terminator, turned out to be a very good day for Merwyn which saw him lead the pack by 40 points followed by Gurmeet and Tan.
Day 5 was a rest day for the competitors who sweated around the clock with their service teams to keep their cars going. For those who had bigger issues, it was the time where they could get back into competition. So, when the teams were preparing for the next set of stages, we, the scribes, had a couple of challenges laid out for us. We were supposed to drive the Polaris RZR 800 across two specially laid out stages and compete amongst ourselves. When we recced the stages, we knew we were being handled with kid gloves. The courses were tricky for sure but not dangerous like the real RFC challenges. It was fun pushing the Polaris RZR through running streams, up the hills, across slush and a couple of tricky climbs to speed up towards the finish. Driving the Polaris for the first time, I was surprised by its ability and composure through the manic things I had attempted.
The Twilight consisted of just one stage – an eight kilometre-long trail through the jungle further south in Goa. There were no rules, except for the safety precaution, as the drivers had the liberty to choose their own path to traverse the forest course. They had a time limit of 10 hours to finish the stage and earn 100 points. Those who managed to cross a certain checkpoint got 30. It was imperative for the forerunners to finish Twilight as only those who did so, got entry to the two post-Twilight stages worth 100 points each.
The camaraderie that we saw through the entire event got to new heights as drivers struggled to inch their way through the jungle. They helped each other with directions and tricks to overcome obstacles. Those who broke down or got stuck and could not go further stayed back and helped others. In the midst of the fierce competition, it was the spirit of sportsmanship that won respect and our hearts. 13 out of 30 participants managed to conquer Twilight and qualified for SS25 and SS26.
Gurmeet finished just 11 points clear of Merwyn to win the RFC while Tan was 55 points behind Merwyn for third.
It was the first time for me to witness an off-roading event of such scale and I would love to thank Cougar Motorsports for bringing the RFC franchise to India. A special mention for Force Motors who have stood by the event till now and also participated in the event with their factory teams to win the first two seasons of RFC. In spite of the confusion over the results, the Force teams took back their protests in the spirit of the game which Gurmeet Virdi and Kirpal Singh Tung from Team Gerrari Offroaders won after a long battle over seven days.
Pictures do not do justice to the difficulty of the challenges and if you want to feel the RFC, head out to Goa next year and see it for yourself. The kind of effort that goes into building these insane jeeps, the kind of efforts the driver and the navigator put into every stage, the kind of speed with which the service teams repair the broken cars in those hostile conditions, would make anyone go wow. The brotherhood that underlines the competition makes every challenger a winner. Sure you would love a trophy to reminisce years later, but you know it is the attempt that had won hearts to start with.
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