A factory ride is something most motorcycle racers dream of. And CS Santosh has been really quite good at chasing his dreams - of course he calls them rainbows - but they're essentially the same thing. With a motorcycle as his weapon, he's battled sand dunes, the disorienting desert heat and the odd accident by way of a broken toe, motorcycle on fire, etc. It's made him stronger. It's made him even more determined to succeed at his sport. And it's made the world sit up and take notice.
CS Santosh, the first Indian to compete in the Dakar Rally, will ride for the team
From being a privateer, tackling the dreaded Dakar Rally on his own steam, to finally landing a factory ride. As we all know, it's happened with the newly formed Hero MotoSports Team Rally. Essentially a collaborative effort between Hero MotoCorp and Speedbrain GmbH, a German off-road racing specialist company, headed by Wolfgang Fischer who has years of experience in the field.
And while Santosh had done the rounds of so very many motorcycle manufacturers, in the hopes that they would back him at the Dakar, Hero MotoCorp had been the one company that he hadn't approached himself. Instead they came to him.
It's funny that I had assumed that they were unlikely to be interested in something like this, so I never approached them. But they'd been working on this, planning it for a while. Especially with their plans of expansion and their new R&D facility, it all made sense," Santosh says. And in his own words, he was the last piece of the puzzle."
CS Santosh astride his Speedbrain 450 Rally tackling the dunes at the Merzouga Rally
With Joaquim 'J-Rod' Rodrigues, a legendary name as far as MotoCross is concerned (Santosh describes him as totally nuts in a good way and the best export from Portugal), and a team that truly knows what to do, Santosh headed to the team's first event of the season, the 2016 Afriquia Merzouga Rally. The learning curve, given that he'd only managed to test the bike five days before the event began, was steep. Santosh finished the event in 16th place, while his team-mate, new to the rally-raid format of competition, finished ninth overall.
It's hard to be satisfied with the result," Santosh says. Because, let's make no mistake about it, he isn't the sort of rider who just wants to make up the numbers. Santosh wants to win internationally. He wants to win the Dakar... someday. But back to the Merzouga Rally for now. There's just so much that your mind needs to focus on. Navigation, riding, controlling the bike, your physical condition... To do it all together is tough."
To add to all of that the Merzouga Rally takes riders through terrain changes. You've barely had the time to get used to the dunes, when you're thrown into a riverbed, then there's mountain passes, rocks, fesh fesh, all in rapid succession.
But there's one aspect of it all that Santosh is especially satisfied with - the Speedbrain 450 Rally. The bike is really good. The motor is really strong and reliable. And the bike is overall at a level where it is pretty sorted." There are a few areas on which they plan on focussing to get the motorcycle Dakar ready. One of which happens to be redistributing the weight a little. While the fuel is all carried at the back at the moment, the team plans to distribute the fuel more evenly in the future, he tells us.
The immediate goal for the Indian rider, however, is to work on himself. The roadbook really is everything, and I need to focus on that," he says. Over the course of the next three months Santosh will be in Europe training hard, with his team-mate and with a coach. The advantage that he has is that he will be training on the rally bike, something that he hasn't had the luxury of doing in the past. Being able to really find the limit of the bike and the limit of the tyres is something crucial ahead of a competitive rally situation," he says.
There are things that are putting his mind at ease though. For one, he has a two-year contract with the Hero MotoSports Team Rally outfit, with the option of a third year too, which means that he isn't worrying about where he will be next, and how he's going to find himself a seat. All he has to do is focus on the riding. There's also the fact that Hero MotoCorp, as a company, seems to have taken a very calm approach to their whole Dakar project. They're thinking in terms of the next five years, and there's no pressure to immediately win, and no unrealistic expectations, which is very reassuring," Santosh says.
Right now his goal is just the training. Ahead of the 2017 edition of the Dakar, though, Santosh will compete in the Baja Espana (riding hard as there's no navigation involved), before tackling the Oil Libya Morocco Rally. Eighty per cent of the Dakar grid will be there, so it's important for us to see how we do there."
Santosh, meanwhile, is grateful for the fact that he is a factory rider. There are no expectations for him to have to bring in money of any sort to the team. He just needs to focus on the job at hand - riding. I'm actually even getting paid to do my job, and that's really terrific," he says.
He's come a long way from that Dakar outing in 2015, then?
I've matured a lot. In terms of the kind of speed that I have today. In terms of navigation. I didn't have any clue about how to do the Dakar, the sort of nutrition involved, the sort of clothes you need nothing. I just winged it. From then to now..." he laughs.
Yup, he's sure has come a long way.