16th April, 2014

Time To Gill

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By Aminah Sheikh

Bengaluru weather didn’t demand a second layer of clothing yet the entire Team Mahindra boys were wearing bright red T-shirts over their shirts. The red T-shirts said ‘What Next? Gaurav Gill’. The freshly crowned champion of Asia Pacific rallying didn’t hide a smirk as he met the boys. It could be a seat in a World Rally Championship car, a World Championship itself…who knows what the fastest rallyist India has ever produced is capable of doing next!

In the next three days that followed Gaurav Gill showed his proness as he powered his Super XUV 500, a rally car people were ready to write off at the start of the season, to fourth INRC podium in a row.

Not many people have watched the champion as he goes about his job as closely as Musa Sheriff. He has been Gaurav’s navigator for seven long years and he has watched him mature as a rally driver. Musa thinks Gill has an amazing memory that helps him remember ever turn on every stage. Musa should know, as he is a pioneer when it comes to stage rallying with pace notes.

Like Musa, Leela Krishnan, the technical head at Red Rooster Racing and Team Mahindra, has been tracking Gill over the years. And better still, he competed with Gill and never loses a chance to lock horns with him even now. ‘He is a natural and that was evident from the early days. He learns and improves his skill every time he goes out on a car’, says Leela.

At the age of 18, Gaurav was the youngest rallyist to have won the South India rally 2000, his maiden rally. He was driving for team JK Tyres.

His love for racing was triggered by his uncle Upar Gill. “As a kid I’d see all these fancy race cars and all I dreamed of was to sit in one such car,” shares Gaurav. The first car he ever drove was a Maruti Van which he’d sneak out of home, at the age of 12.  “That was the only car in which my feet would touch the accelerator. Back then I’d get a friend to co-drive and we’d be ripping on some open space/ ground in Delhi,” quips Gaurav.

Racing circuit peers say what also sets this racer apart is his involvement with the team that works on building his car. “He understands the set-up of a car and therefore knows when to push and when not to. Consequently, we’ve not had to change a single bolt or nut in any of the races this year (2013),” says Leela. “During the fourth INRC (2013) round he did have engine temperature issue but he handled it well and finished by winning the rally.”

However, for this ‘speed junkie,’ as Gaurav terms himself, it hasn’t been a smooth ride throughout.  “The years 2009 and 2010, I suffered with luck. Of the 12-13 rallies I participated in, I couldn’t complete even one race due to mechanical failure. That phase of my life made more even more determined,” recalls Gaurav.

Musa remembers the only time they went off-track - it was during the Popular Rally of Kerala 2008. At a turn the car’s front wheel came off and they landed in a tree. “It was a mechanical glitch. I’ve never doubted his ability to drive,” confirms Musa.  “At 120 kms an hour, you can imagine the impact. I broke my nose,” laughs Gaurav.

In the past he has won the National Road Racing Championship (2004 and 2006), INRC (2007,2009 and 2011), FIA APRC Rally Indonesia, FIA APRC Rally Australia, FIA APRC Rally Japan and Rally New Caledonia. The year 2013 has been golden for the rallyist.

Over the years with the international exposure and having driven so many cars, the one change he spots in himself is his attitude towards the sport. He says, “When I started off I had aggression, now I’ve controlled aggression. I use it when I need it.”

“My wife (Shilpa) threatens me – Don’t come home if you don’t win,” Gaurav grins. He aims to driver along-side his wife for a rally, at least once.

Although he has clinched the fastest Indian driver’s title, he isn’t slowing down.

In Leela’s words, Everyone is looking to go faster. Someday somebody else will get faster than the champion. Gaurav has been increasing his pace with each rally. He will have to keep chasing his own speed limit.

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