The 2019 edition of Desert Storm stormed into the scorching sands of Bikaner on Wednesday as the participants completed the first leg after the flag off. Sunny Sidhu was in the lead on the opening day, driving the XUV500 for Mahindra Adventure while his teammate and WRC ace Gaurav Gill fell behind by 10 minutes after his XUV500 got stuck in the SS3.
Running second in the standings is last year’s champion Aabhishek Mishra with his co-driver Srikanth Gowda. Sidhu and his experienced co-driver, Ashwin Naik, were quickest in the in SS1 and SS2 but lost some crucial time in the tricky night stage of the first leg. However, they still finished nearly seven minutes ahead of Aabhishek Mishra. Another rally ace, Samrat Yadav finished four minutes adrift in third position after he lost a significant amount of time in SS1. This year, Yadav is driving a modified pick-up truck version of the Toyota Fortuner. Lhakpa Tsering, former Raid de Himalaya winner who is driving a Polaris this year, also finished in top 10.
All three SSs were concluded in Bikaner and were around 45km long each. Considering the high temperatures this summer, the organisers, Northern Motorsports, scheduled the special stages early in the morning and late in the evening to counter the heat. The motorsports fraternity also got the opportunity to cheer the comeback of the Army, who fielded ten teams in the four-wheeler category and three in the two-wheeler category this year.
The opening leg proved to be a tougher ordeal than expected as four drivers retired from the competition. Sanjay Agarwal’s modified Grand Vitara, which was running a V6 engine burst into flames for reasons yet unknown. Fortunately, both Agarwal and his co-driver Smitha N escaped the car unhurt. Philippos Mathai, the third factory driver for Mahindra in Desert Storm, also retired from the rally.
Speaking at the flag-off, Gaurav Gill said, “This is the most amazing line-up that I have ever seen. Almost all the top manufacturers are here, which is the best thing that could have happened to the sport”.
The second leg will begin with SS4 in Bikaner before the competitors head to Jaisalmer for the remaining stages of the day. The drivers will be covering a distance of 2,000 kilometres over the next four days.