Interview: 2013 INRC Champion Amittrajit Ghosh
OD: The 2013 season has seen you dominate the sport quite thoroughly, from that win in South India to the win at the K1000. Can you talk us through the season?
AG: The season was actually very tough. In Chikmagalur last year, we understood that something was wrong with the engine in the SSS as we were down on power and finally ran the rally proper on 3 cylinders from SS5. So this year we had to get an engine, and with a Cedia it is not like you can walk into a store and buy one. We were unable to find one going into Round 1 and I knew straight away that we were at a disadvantage. Couple that with dampers set up for the faster N+ cars, which did not work at all on the Group N car, we knew we had our hands full. So if you see stage times of the South India rally, you'll see that we had to fight till the end to win that event.
Ghosh and Ashwin Naik in action at the previous edition of the South India Rally
Then came Nashik and we had to get the engine changed. With no other choice, I took my wife's car for a drive telling her that I was going down to Coimbatore for testing. But what actually happened was that we took the engine off her car along with some other parts. Something she will find out while reading this article, so help me God! So I drove down to Coimbatore from Mumbai, got in on a Saturday morning, Rajan (my tuner) changed the parts over the same day and I drove back out to Mumbai in the evening right in time for her to take the car to office on Monday. And we were ready for Nashik, somewhat. From not having proper dampers and engine, we now just didn't have proper dampers. And we had better brakes. That was progress and that resulted in a win which was a little less hard fought than South India Rally. Having said that, it was a great battle with Vikram Mathias who showed he hasn't lost his touch.
Winning the 2013 Nashik Rally, the second round of the championship
That was two out of two and we kind of knew that it was going as planned. But it was always our goal to do a little bit better than we did in the last rally. It was with this thought that I had a chat, post Nashik, with Leela Uncle (N Leelakrishnan) on what he thought were the things needed for us to go quicker. With his experience, it was within seconds that he pointed out that the car needs to be set up properly first and it needs a better LSD than what I was using at the time. Setting the car up was a good idea and I straightaway asked him if I could come along with him when he was going testing ahead of the Coimbatore Rally to sort it out, and he obliged. But buying an LSD was out of the question. Privateer! Limited budget! And as always, he came to the rescue. He loaned me an LSD and took me testing. Our goal in Coimbatore was to go fastest in the first three stages or, as put out in most media, be the fastest 2WD car of the Rally and prove that the aging Cedia still had some steam left in it against the newer machines. And we comfortably managed that without having to drive flat out. Once that was done, we settled down to a rather boring rally and won it easily. We had a hat-trick! And 6 wins in a row if you took into account last year's Chikmagalur Rally and the back-to-back Mughal Rally wins.
Ghosh's rally-spec Mitsubishi Cedia on the tarmac stages at Nashik
Come the K1000, I landed in Bangalore with very clear instructions from the Team Boss (read wife!) that the dates for Chikmagalur Rally, the next and final event had been postponed and would now clash with our holidays. So we need to finish 4th or above and wrap up the championship in Bangalore as there would be no rallying this year post that. Easier said than done as driving to just finish is such a hard thing - you tend to lose concentration and the car doesn't handle properly if you are not driving at a certain pace and it's nerve wracking as you listen with fear to each and every sound and the list goes on. Looking back now, I would say everything went as planned, actually better than planned. We won the K1000. Something I had to tick on my list, with my parents having won it in 1981 and famously being disqualified the following year, after winning it again, for believe it or not, a small steering wheel!
We have got our second Championship and that too, consecutively. God has been kind and been with us. Hope the good luck continues and we shall continue to work as hard or harder in the future. The icing on the cake was being greeted by a wonderful congratulatory letter from Arun Mammen, MD, MRF Limited, my principal sponsor on returning from Bangalore, for winning the Championship.
OD: And going into the K1000 you needed to finish no lower than fourth place to clinch the title. Did that add to the pressure or ensure that you were more relaxed on the whole?
AG: To be honest, the pressure was not having to finish fourth, because we knew that with the pace we had seen all year it would not be a problem to do so. But yes, the unknown factor of luck that is always there was a worrying factor. Having said that, if it did not work out in the K1000, I am sure we would have got the job done in Chikmagalur, albeit at a very hefty cost of all the money we would lose in cancelling our holiday plans! Jokes apart, I had complete support from my wife for cancelling the holiday if need be as the championship was more important, so it wasn't bad at all. If not in K1000, we would do it in Chikmagalur..
OD: Over the course of the season, every time we've spoken to you, you've been particularly vocal in your appreciation of N Leelakrishnan and the Mitsubishi Cedia that has taken the challenge to your rivals. Tell us about that.
AG: As I have mentioned before, post Nashik, I sat down for a chat with Leela Uncle on how he thought we could go quicker. He felt the same as me in that the Cedia could be quicker than the other cars if set up properly and we just got down to making it work.
OD: You've also come from a family that's been thoroughly entrenched in the world of motorsport. Did that add to the pressure of being in the sport, and more importantly being good at it?
AG: It has never added any pressure on me. On the other hand, it has been of great help to have people in the family who know and understand the sport. I have learnt a lot from my father (Arindam Ghosh) and continue to do so.
OD: Tell us a little about the overall journey you've had in rallying so far. And of course, a little bit about your single seater career as well.
AG: Let me start from my racing career, which was more of a coincidence than choice. I always wanted to rally so my dad called Vicky Uncle (Vicky Chandhok) to ask him about what needed to be done to prepare a rally car. He told dad to send me racing instead. So I went and drove the Formula Maruti. Even a one off driving the then newly launched Formula LGB resulted in a pole and a spectacular crash while leading. So the pace was there. Driving for Team Valvoline, I managed to win the National Championship in 2005 by a mere 1 point, having lost it by 2 points the year before to my long time friend and competitor, Gaurav (Gill). The following year I drove the Formula Rolon, but rallying was always my calling, and in 2006, when dad did not drive the last round in Goa, I jumped into his car, took a friend along, had no idea what pace notes were and just went out to have fun. To our shock, we were running only about 10 to 15 seconds off the pace of the leader in our category after Day 1, and I knew it was what I wanted to do from then on.
Victory at the K1000 ensured Amittrajit Ghosh and Ashwin Naik won their second consecutive INRC title
In 2007 I got some sponsorship from JK Tyre, Axis Bank & DTDC and I was on my way to rallying. Won the championship in my category (1400cc) comfortably post a dodgy start in Cochin - hitting a cow and a bridge on my way to 3rd - after which I won all the remaining rallies. The same year, I did some saloon car racing as well and won the MRF Racing Challenge in the 1400cc N+ category and finished second in the 1400cc N category.
Post 2007, I did not know what to do and at one point thought about stopping as I did not have the budgets in place to continue. But a call from Red Rooster Racing changed that and I was back in 2008 for a wonderful 3 years with them where I was paired with Ashwin (Naik) and learnt so much from Leela Uncle, Naren Kumar & Vikram Mathias. In terms of fitness too, Red Rooster Racing was where the need to be fit came from our Director, Dinesh Reddy who urged us to become fit and even sent me to meet Ramji Srinivasan in Chennai and consult him on my fitness goals.
Actually, looking back, I have been helped by so many people in my career this far. Starting from way back when Vicky Uncle and Karun (Chandhok) got me sponsors and Karun personally took time out of his racing and came to India and worked with us and helped us so much. Kamlesh Uncle (Patel) and Amitha Aunty and his whole family including Aditya (Patel) who has gone on to become a big racing star now and Akshay, who let me stay with them as family during my racing days. I used to actually share Aditya's room and all those years were so important and I learnt so much from Kamlesh Uncle about driving and setting up a race car. My first rally car was also built by him.
There are so many of these incidents where people have gone out of their way to help me. Like this one time when Prakash Kadur (Karna Kadur's dad) called and helped us by giving us a terratrip meter, which we badly needed as my navigator at that point of time had a habit of getting lost and most of the time had no idea where we were on the route in terms of distance travelled or left.
I always say that I have been helped by so many people in my career and I would say, the last but most important addition to that list till date was when after Red Rooster Racing pulled out of rallying, I was picked up by Team MRF to drive for them and they have supported me ever since even after them not running as a full team in the INRC from 2012. Apart from the tyres, most of the competition parts I have on my car have been supported by MRF and I thank Arun Mammen, Soman Joseph and J Anand for their continued support and wishes over these last three years enabling me to reach where I have today.
OD: What are your plans for the 2014 season of rallying? With the many options that seem to be opening up in terms of cars that can be rallied are you looking at trading the Cedia in for something else? And of course the challenge in 2014 will be to defend your championship title as well. Maybe make it three in a row?
AG: Like every year, the plan is to first try and get some sponsorship to go drive internationally, maybe in the APRC 2WD class. I have felt that it has been time to go drive abroad for at least two years now, but obviously it has not happened for reasons beyond my control, but I am going to keep on trying. I have also been working on my fitness a lot and feel that I should be prepared for the next step where stage distances are a lot longer than the INRC. I have found an excellent trainer, Ajay Sarkar, who works mainly with sportspersons like footballers of major clubs from Bengal. Him being an ex Army person helps even more in making me work hard and achieve my goals, especially keeping me on track during the off season.
As for the INRC, or, as planned by the FMSCI, the IRC 2014, I have my options open and await the regulations to be released before taking a call on the way forward. The idea is to have a competitive car. If the regulations are such that the Cedia is a car we can be competitive in, I see no reason for me to change yet. But if not, we would have to trade it in for a car in which we would have a fighting chance to win.
I would love to defend my Championship in 2014 but more than defending the Championship, it will be great to compete and be pushed further by the competition. I have always said that Gaurav is the best we have in the country and now in the Asia Pacific region too, and it will be great to have him in the same category. Win or lose, it will be great to compete and that's what is most important for all of us to become better. I am also looking forward to having quality foreign drivers come and drive in the IRC as well. Three in a row will be great but even if it doesn't happen, I'm sure I'll enjoy competing as much as any other year.
OD: Tell us what you think of the 2014 regulations.
AG: The regulations are yet to be finalised, approved and released by the FMSCI, so I can't comment on the same. From what I've heard till now it sounds promising, but we will have to wait for the official announcement before I can comment.
OD: Ashwin Naik and you have a good rapport as co-driver and driver. Can we expect that to continue next season? And can you also talk us through Ashwin's role in your 2013 success?
AG: Oh yes, the 'voice' in my car is not changing till he decides to leave. It is working great and I don't see any reason for it to change. Ashwin's role since 2008, and not only in 2013, has been very important. I would say he is the more mature, sensible and calmer person among the two of us and this has helped us a lot in our rallying besides the fact that his calls are spot on and he has never made a mistake till date.
OD: What are your expectations in terms of the 2014 season in terms of the battle for the championship? Do you think it will be a lot closer?
AG: The expectation is to have people like Gaurav Gill and Karamjit Singh in equal cars and just driving on the limit each rally while learning from their vast experience and knowledge. Their times will serve as a benchmark. It will off course be a lot closer and I will have to up my game to be anywhere close to them but that's the whole fun of it.
OD: And of the younger lot of drivers who have come up this year, is there anyone you think is really worth keeping an eye out for?
AG: There are so many young drivers out there. All of them are really working hard so yes, it is advisable to keep an eye out for them but same goes for all the older ones as well. In rallying, experience plays a big role and the main threat is from the older ones, not the younger. Having said that, everyone's here to win and you have to keep an eye out for each and every competitor.
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