Dakar 2017 was CS Santosh’s coming of age

A detailed analysis of CS Santosh’s third Dakar outing

Every year in January, a bunch of off-road enthusiasts – the world’s toughest ones, to be fair – packs their bags and heads to South America for an adventure known as the Dakar Rally. Covering almost 10000 km of the toughest terrain across three countries in a span of two weeks, it’s the toughest rally anywhere in the world. Since 2015, holding the Indian flag high at Dakar is the Bangalorean CS Santosh. 2017 was his third outing at the event and his second instance of crossing the finish line, that’s a respectable 66% completion rate at this unforgiving rally. This year, while Aravind KP became the second-ever Indian to participate in Dakar, CS still remains the only Indian to have seen the chequered flag.
While CS Santosh couldn’t eclipse his debut runwhere he finished 36th, his final finishing position – 47th– wasn’t all that bad after all given the fact that at one point he was languishing in 81st place.
So here’s a semi-logical account CS Santosh’s South American adventure:
A tough rally by some margin
I met Santosh barely 8 days after he returned from Dakar. One could see that the grueling rally had impacted him physically. Hours of non-stop riding and weather changes in the range of 45 degrees to 5 degrees in span of two weeks, had taken a toll on his body. Not weak by any stretch of imagination, just a bit leaner compared to his pre-Dakar athletic frame. Occupational hazard in his line of work, one would say.
And that tells half the story of how difficult this year’s event was. “Overall, it was a really tough Dakar, it’s different from what I had expected and that caught me off-guard especially with how technical it was; for 60-70-80 km every day, it was really technical with slow speed. It was enduro trials kind of stuff. It was physically really demanding and it was a tough Dakar – one of the toughest ones they’ve done in South America,” said the 34-year-old.
This was due to the fact that lot of people over the years had complained of the rally being too fast (and dangerous). As a result, the sports director, five-time champion Marc Coma, decided to make the rally slower and a lot more technical. Slower speeds keep the event safe while the technicality aspect still ensures that only the best racers come out on top.
Navigating his way through vegetation (Image credit: Hero Motosport)
Navigation: How difficult can it be?
Turns out, very.
To give a perspective of the compounded navigational difficulty, here’s what Santosh had to say: “I think we didn’t realize how difficult it would get. Because while making the road book, we had to pay extra attention. Earlier we’d just mark the road book thinking it wouldn’t be that hard in terms of finding our way and where they want us to go but this year they made it too difficult. Every note was so long; sometimes, in a single note it would have three sub-notes. So we had to make extra notes in a note which was very difficult to read while you’re riding. The places where we’d navigate were river beds with vegetation and there were no track so it was kind of difficult.”
The Error
Due to a navigational error during stage 3, Santosh missed a Way Point (WP) which resulted in him incurring a huge time penalty. “I think I made that mistake which cost me an hour and 20 minutes. Plus that day, I lost more time because I was so exhausted and spent in the first 70-80 km. that when the stage actually became nice and fast later on, I got passed by more riders that day. I hit a wall. I had no energy. Even though the penalty was only an hour and a half, I believe because of all these reasons, I lost two and half to three hours that day,” said the 2016 Desert Storm Champion.
“I would’ve finished in the 30s had I not missed the Way Point and lost all that time,” he added. Which sounds fair because if you deduct 2.5-3 hours from his final classification timing of 42hours, you get into the mid-30s territory in the standings.  
In for the long run (Image credit: Hero Motosport)

Hero-Santosh: one-night stand or a match made in heaven?

The Bangalorean chuckled as I asked, “In three years, you’ve ridden for three different teams on three different bikes? In the fourth year, will it be a fourth team?”
“No, no, I’m loyal and I’m looking for a long-term relationship and I think with Hero I have that,” he explains.
One can sense that there’s a certain honesty to his answer. With this team, he’s a lot more settled. When he rode for the very first time in Dakar with Kini-Red Bull Team in 2015, he was the doe-eyed rookie at Dakar who was living his dream and soaking up all the knowledge he could from his team – especially from his superstar team-mate Marc Coma.
His association with Suzuki in 2016 was always going to be a short-term one. Though the bike and team was built around him, the machine as well as the association was held together by scotch tape (a really old one), which reached its logical conclusion in mid-2016.

But this Hero-Santosh partnership seems different. Santosh seems happy and settled with this team. And Hero’s machine is right up there with the best of the lot. By Santosh’s own admission, his last year’s ride – Suzuki – not only had reliability issues but it was almost 40 kmph slower than the big guns, i.e. KTMs, Yamahas and Husqvarnas. Fortunately, Hero has got it all – pace as well as reliability. 

The only Indian who conquered Dakar twice, @cs_santosh22 continues to be an inspiration for riders around the world. #dakar2017#heroatdakarpic.twitter.com/HeGZfCPaIP

— Hero MotoSports (@hero_motosports) January 16, 2017

Look ma, new ride
Hero’s already started working on a new bike for the next Dakar. Speaking about his soon-to-be-launched ride, Santosh said, “It’s in the works right now. We’re building a new motorcycle from the ground up. The suspension’s already sorted and we’re going to move the fuel. Currently we’re carrying a lot of fuel in the back but in the new bike the fuel’s going to be centralized. This is going to be a huge turning point for us and I’m really excited to see what the motorcycle is going to do for us.
“It’s going to be more agile, faster and much easier to ride. For me it’ll make a huge difference. Guys like J-Rod can ride any motorcycle you put them on. But for someone like me if you give me a motorcycle that’s easier to ride, it’ll be a drastic improvement in my pace as well as my overall standings for sure.”
And the best part is that the guys at Hero are planning to turn on the ignition key by May to give Santosh a good six-month run ahead of Dakar 2018. “The team’s working really hard and hopefully by Merzouga we should have the bike ready,” said Santosh with a gleaming smile when asked when we can hope to see his new ride. 
The rookie team had a dream run at Dakar 2017 (Image credit: Hero Motosport)
What next in 2017?
The best part about CS Santosh is that he’s aware of the chink in his armour and he’s ready to work on it. “I’ve assessed my weaknesses. It’s liberating to know what I need to do to be ready for the next Dakar so that I’m going to address – in terms of fitness and being stronger. So I’ll definitely be a lot stronger going into next Dakar,” he admits.
At the same time, he will be putting a lot more miles under his belt during 2017. “In India, I’ll be doing Desert Storm and Baja India with Hero. For the first time we (Team Hero) will be competing on the Indian soil so that’s going to be big for us. Besides that I’ll be doing Merzouga as well.
“And on the sides, we’ll be racing Powerboats here in Mumbai. So it’s going to be a packed year for me,” Santosh exclaims.

That’s correct, CS Santosh has recently developed a new hobby – Powerboat Racing. He’s been training for it since months now and he’s also had to pass a written examination in order to get his license for Powerboats. Thence come March, he will displaying all his talent – this time on water – during the upcoming P1 Powerboat Racing Indian Grand Prix along the Mumbai coast. 

All in all, 2017 is going to be the make or break year for him. For this year, he has it all – experience, understanding of his weaknesses and a machine to match up to his strengths. This is his best chance till date to take things higher by a few notches and prepare himself for a full-fledged assault on next year’s Dakar for that coveted top 20 slot. Only time will tell.