"Paaji koi nahi, aajao seedhe seedhe," screamed Kirpal Singh Tung while guiding Gurmeet Virdi to manoeuvre his 4X4 over a huge tree trunk. For those who know him, Gurmeet is a very calm, cool and composed guy who loves off-roading. It's not easy to ruffle him. In fact, he reminds me of Kimi Raikkonen. Irrespective of how a competitive stage goes, his face remains emotionless. However, today he seems to have broken into a sweat for once. His eyes reveal that he is basking in an uneasy calm. His co-driver Kirpal, who has commendable fitness levels, is getting out of breath and taking the support of a tree to stand up straight. And this was just the beginning of what is considered to be among the world's toughest motorsport events - the Rainforest Challenge Malaysia. But frankly, their troubles had started even before they got on the flight to Malaysia.
At the 2016 Rainforest Challenge India, Gurmeet and Kirpal had created history by being the first Indian team to win the challenging off-roading event. They had defeated Tan Eng Joo and Mervyn Lim, the previously undefeated champions of RFC India who were highly skilled and well-respected in the off-road community. With this win, Gurmeet and Kirpal gained a free entry to the RFC Malaysia event, and I was very excited about witnessing them represent India in person at the mother event of the RFC global series.
The transport stage to the starting point of the Twilight zone, turned out to be a rigorous workout for all men and machines
Considering their feat, the 10 members of the Indian contingent at RFC Malaysia were expecting them to finish in the top 10 overall. Even Gurmeet and Kirpal were optimistic and had initially set a target of finishing in the top five overall. However, getting to the first day of the RFC Malaysia proved to be an immense challenge in itself for them. To compete in the Malaysia Grand Final, the primary requirement was a competition-ready and mechanically fit vehicle which could withstand a brutal amount of beating.
Now, most of the RFC participants build a vehicle for themselves. And for our guys, buying a vehicle and modifying it was ruled out, given the time and costs involved. So they had to rent a vehicle to compete in the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge. That is easier said than done. No one is keen on renting out an RFC-spec vehicle and creating more competition for themselves. Despite reaching out to all the major off-roading clubs in Malaysia, they were unable to find a machine. That's when they reached out to Harmit Singh, who has been an official in previous editions of the RFC in India as well as Malaysia for help. An avid off-roader and well-connected in the Malaysian community, Harmit helped Team India find a rental Suzuki Jimny.
It was a very different beast compared to what Gurmeet drives back home. As per RFC regulations, the Jimny retained the original production chassis and bodyshell. Of course, the chassis was thoroughly reinforced and the body stripped down to the basic essentials. Under the hood, lay a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine from a Toyota Land Cruiser mated to a gearbox from a 2.4-litre petrol model. It came equipped with air-locking portal axles and a steel cable Power Take Off or PTO winch.
The PTO winch is very different from electric or hydraulic winches. The PTO winch uses the engine as a power source to unwind or wind the winching cable. As a result, you can winch the vehicle faster by increasing the engine revs. Electric winches can pull only a limited amount of weight. However, a PTO winch can pull a load much heavier that the weight of the car. Compared to plasma cables, the steel cable is stronger and can handle a lot more weight and last longer. However, it has its disadvantages too as the steel cable is quite heavy and engaging the PTO winch is a slightly complicated procedure. Understandably, Gurmeet and Kirpal were initially sceptical about using the PTO winch but eventually they got used to it. Well, they didn't quite have an option.
The first six special stages were held in Kuantan, the capital of the Pahang state in Malaysia. None of the stages were too short and they were especially tough on the co-driver as they had a lot of running around to do. Every stage required the winch to be utilised for a minimum of two times. The participants had to skilfully manoeuvre their vehicles through slush pits and deep trenches filled with water and also cross thick wooden logs. Apart from warming up participants and their vehicles, it gave everyone a clear glimpse of the things to come.
Gurmeet and Kirpal, representing Team India, participated in a rental Suzuki Jimny
This being my first time at the RFC Malaysia, I was trying to keep my gumboots and pants clean by skilfully hopping around on the dry sections of the track. Needless to say, the marshals and competitors were amused by my antics. In two days you will be treading through waist-deep slush," quipped Gurmeet. He obviously knew better having competed in the 2014 Rainforest Challenge Malaysia as a co-driver with Kabir Waraich. This time he was going to be behind the wheel while Kirpal would be his co-driver.
On Day 1, I was also shocked to notice the laid-back attitude of the marshals who at times were turning a blind eye to the proceedings. They were allowing participants to accelerate ruthlessly despite one or more wheels being stuck in slush. It only made the ruts deeper and the stage more challenging for the next lot of competitors. Safety rules and regulations were not being followed strictly. They weren't checking if the driver and co-driver were wearing seat belts after getting back into the car.
Bystanders were standing too close to the cars while they were being winched out. Some co-drivers were even crossing over the cable while the car was being winched out. In RFC India, the marshals are very strict and would have imposed penalties on the teams. Also, they don't allow spectators to get so close to the action. A winch cable could snap any moment injuring the spectators severely. For once I felt proud about the way a motorsport event is conducted back home.
The gruelling and unpredictable nature of the RFC is what draws participants from across the globe
After the end of the first day, the real challenge began for participants as well the support teams and the media contingent. Well, firstly we weren't going to stay in a hotel anymore. Being completely new to camping, I was initially sceptical about the thought of sleeping in a tent and bathing in a river. I got even more worried upon knowing that it is the monsoon season in Malaysia and heavy showers were expected every day. I found comfort in the fact that there were many first-timers like me around and in the end it would be a unique adventure.
Things began to get interesting on Day 3 when the SS7 to SS12 were held. The stages were now more technically challenging, required a lot more winching and each one required teams to drive through a fast-flowing river. Making things difficult for participants was that each stage had a big trench with a three-foot drop and a 90-degree five-foot climb to negotiate. It was vital for the co-drivers to select the correct winching spot else vital time would be lost resulting in a DNF.
The next day was a long transport stage, and we spent the entire day in driving to the next campsite. What made the journey worthwhile was the campsite in Kampung Buntu which offered spectacular views all around. With only two competitive stages scheduled to be held the next day, the mood was relaxed and there was time to visit all tents and make friends. After talking to some of the participants I realised that everyone considered completing all stages of the RFC Malaysia to be an achievement in itself. Of course, finishing on the podium in the overall or individual category is the big prize. The gruelling and unpredictable nature of the RFC is what draws participants from across the globe.
Among them is Jirancha Khongsuk from Thailand, who was participating in RFC Malaysia for the first time. She was among the few women drivers who were roughing it out with the men to compete for top honours. Jirancha has competed two times in RFC Vietnam as well as in RFC Thailand. In Thailand the stages are bigger and there is a lot more space. So you can drive the 4X4 vehicle much faster. In Malaysia, completing the stages requires a lot more thinking and analysis on the competitor's part."
Another lady driver who was continuing to complete all stages with the same enthusiasm as on day one was Maslina Ibrahim. At 51 years of age, she was the oldest lady competitor with amazing energy and fitness. I participated in RFC for the first time in 2014. Unlike most competitors, I am new to off-roading with not much experience. However, I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge of completing all the stages."
So, while some participants were equally keen on enjoying the challenging stages and having some fun, others were dead serious on bringing the trophy home. Chang Chiew Shen of Team Maxxis-Sabah and winner of the 2015 Rainforest Challenge Malaysia along with the first runner-up Kulbak Roman of Russia were clear about their intentions. They were going head to head on every single stage while keeping one eye on the scoreboard. Things were going quite smooth for Team India until the start of the SS15. The winch shaft of the vehicle broke resulting in a DNF. Despite the best effort of their service team, the vehicle couldn't be repaired in time and they had to contend with a DNS (Did Not Start) in SS18. However, this setback did not dampen their spirits, and Gurmeet remained calm and continued to soldier on.
By now, everyone had got acquainted with one another and invitations were being extended by neighbouring tents to savour their cuisines. Well, the organisers hadn't organised a buffet. Nope, that isn't the spirit of the RFC. Everyone is self-sufficient and they not only get their own food supplies but also cook meals by themselves. Now, being a city dweller, who stays with his parents and has the luxury of a full-time maid, I couldn't showcase my culinary skills. So I helped the teams set up campfires, fetch water from the river and wash the plates. That's after I had wolfed down multiple servings of super yummy chunks of mutton, roasted chicken, crab soup and spaghetti.
The next day marked the start of the Twilight Zone, but the transport stage to the starting point turned out to be a rigorous workout for all men and machines. We had to drive kilometres through a forest over extremely steep and slippery terrain. Every few metres or so, every vehicle was getting stuck and had to be winched out. That was when we came together as one group and overcame the common challenge of treading across unforgiving terrain.
In comparison, the actual Twilight Zone, which requires participants to find their way through a dense and uninhabited rainforest, was surprisingly easy. We were looking forward to completing the Twilight Zone as it is considered to be the toughest bit of any RFC event. However, we ended up utilising the winch only four times," commented 21-year-old Oliver Vondracek from Czech Republic, the youngest participant and driver in the RFC Malaysia. Team India was among the first ones to come out of the Twilight Zone. Gurmeet's cool nature and calm driving was paying off along with his brilliant coordination with Kirpal. On the last day, SS19 to SS24 were held and they were a lot longer than the previous stages.
In the end, the 2016 Rainforest Challenge Malaysia Grand Final will be remembered for years to come. Gurmeet and Kirpal created history by not only successfully completing the RFC Malaysia but also winning their category of diesel vehicles below 3,050cc. They are the first Indian team to achieve this feat. They even finished 11th overall despite their vehicle being not being as modern or light as other competitors.
Overall, Team Maxxis-Sabah comprising of Chang Chiew Shen and Edward Benggon finished first with 2,203 points. For the first time in the history of the RFC mother event, only one point separated them from the second-placed team of Kulbak Roman and Pavel Kovalenko from Russia. The third place was bagged by Lyubarenko Valeriy and Katkov Andrei from Russia with 2,168 points.
After seeing the modifications on the vehicles and the skill levels of competitors, we felt that our aim should be to simply complete the RFC. For us to win our category and finish 11th overall is a dream come true," said a beaming Gurmeet. For Kirpal the pressure to succeed was a lot more as this was his first time in RFC Malaysia. He admitted that the main challenge for him was in remaining within the confines of the track. In RFC Malaysia if there is a two-feet wall, then the co-driver has to climb it before getting to the winching point. In India you can simply go around the wall and bypass it.
Gurmeet and Kirpal created history by winning their category of diesel vehicles below 3,050cc
At the end of the 20th edition of the RFC, everyone was glad to head back into the comfort of their hotel rooms after spending 10 days in the forest. It was time to get rid of the mud and slush for now. As usual RFC founder Luis assured everyone, Next year the Special Stages will be more gruelling and challenging." Now that has already gotten me and the participants thinking. How much more difficult can one of the world's most toughest motorsport events get? We are eager to find out.