Harith Noah finished 20th in the overall rankings at the 2021 Dakar, the highest-rated finish ever for an Indian rider at the toughest race in the world. He had been consistently in the top 25 since proceedings reopened post the rest day at Ha’il, and his 20th-place overall finish in the final stage (19th in the stage rankings) came after the strong placing he secured the day prior, closing at 22nd in the overall standings despite losing time due to a navigation error as well as inadvertently riding slow in a speed zone that wasn’t showing on his roadbook.
Harith’s accomplishment makes him an inspiration to scores of Indian motorsport aspirants. So how did his marvellous stint at the 2021 Dakar come about?
The initial days
Harith started racing in 2011 and at one of his first outings, remembers seeing the TVS Racing team – the only big team at the event – with about 10 bikes lined up in a big tent, surrounded by mechanics. At the time, being a part of such an establishment felt like an unrealistic goal for him.
Gradually, he started improving, even winning the national supercross championship in the Privateer class in ’11. Soon after, he got a call from Aravind Padgaonkar, the then manager of TVS Racing, inviting him to test their bike at their Hosur factory. And Harith’s answer was, of course, pretty straightforward!
There were still hurdles to overcome; a lot of learning to do and a lot of competition to face as well. It took rigorous training and quite a few injuries, and it wasn’t till 2014 that he won the supercross championship in the premier class for the first time.
From his supercross days to his switch to rallying, Harith emphatically attributes his success to the backing he received from TVS, such that despite pulling out of the 2021 Dakar, TVS still sponsored his endeavours.
The prelude to the 2021 Dakar
Harith’s international rallying pursuits started in 2018 with the Rally of Morocco, where he placed a commendable 27th. This was followed by a seventh-place finish at the 2019 Baja Aragon, which was also the best finish for an Indian rider at the time. The 2020 Dakar, then, was the next logical step up. The first stage of his Dakar debut though, was borderline disastrous: a crash, leading to a serious eye injury.
But that didn’t quench the fire as Harith made a comeback the very next day, rising a marvellous 45 spots in a single stage! However, mechanical issues with his bike meant he had to sit out Stage 3. But rather than calling off his maiden Dakar endeavour, he elected to keep going as part of the Dakar Experience class, finishing the final stage that year in the 27th position.
Getting back to India, the Covid lockdown made all outdoor activities taboo. Nevertheless, Harith kept his cool, squeezing in a bit of riding at a private track, interspersed with a fitness regime he developed considering his education in Sports Science. This kept him fit enough to compete in the 2020 Andalucia rally, where he bagged a competent 23rd place.
Now acclimatised with the TVS-Sherco 450 RTR – his 2021 Dakar bike – Harith flew to France, sharpening his mental make-up as well his roadbook skills, a prerequisite considering the upcoming Dakar would be a completely new route with more technical, navigation-heavy trails.
Onto the campaign!
Lining up 43rd on the Stage 1 starting grid, Harith covered the 622km without too much hassle, and despite some navigation issues and a low-speed crash, finished 31st. The next stage, too, saw navigation errors, along with an issue with the bike’s gearshift, though he maintained his overall ranking, even climbing to 27th in Stage 3, especially poignant considering last year’s occurrences. Stage 4, however, wasn’t as kind, with a serious crash. Though he was able to walk away from it, the subsequent damage to his bike impacted onward progress, and the time lost pushed him down to the 37th spot overall, with a further loss of two spots in the next stage.
Stage 6 saw him turn over a new leaf, clawing back four spots on the shortened (though still tricky) stage span. And, after a day’s rest to recoup his energies for the second half of the Dakar, Harith continued his climb, to an overall 25 after an error-free 737km to Sakaka. He then leapfrogged a massive number of places (all the way up to 17th!) in the 579km circuit around Neom, despite receiving his first – and thankfully only – time penalty for overspeeding, breaking into the top 25. This spate of luck continued, with Harith making up yet another spot in the next stage, the 583km sprint from Neom to Al Ula.
The penultimate stage, by all accounts, was an eventful one; though Harith started strongly, a significant navigation mistake, along with a disparity between his GPS and roadbook with regards to a speed zone, impacted his pace. Ultimately, his P18 stage finish (a drop of two spots from the previous stage) put him 22nd in the overall standings (a gain of two places), the only silver lining of this long stage.
And finally, the last stage, where Harith made every Indian enthusiast proud. His blazing fast pace and commendable finish cementing the 28-year-old's spot in the annals of Indian motorsport history.
Gracious in victory
Despite the incredible feat he has accomplished, Harith was so nonchalant and humble when we spoke to him a few days post the 2021 Dakar's conclusion. This, despite his final result being a far cry from his initial target of simply finishing the rally safely. Even when he was in the thick of action, Harith stayed true to his credo of "taking it a kilometre at a time," to the extent that he admitted to not even checking upon his stage-wise positions. Not bad for a second-time Dakar entrant with precious little roadbook training, and almost no opportunity to get his bearings on riding in the desert.
In the midst of all that, however, Harith attributes his success to TVS’ support to his growth. From racing on makeshift tracks dug into the paddy fields near his home in his late teens, all the way to the vast expanses of the Saudi Arabian desert, Harith’s dream coming true has TVS’ name, efforts and patience writ large upon it.
“They saw something special in me,” he says, with a smile.
Of course they did, champ.