The Marathon Man
Gautam Sen  24 February 2020
While speaking at the inauguration of the three-day International Centre for Automotive Technology Summit, in late-November 2019, the Union minister of road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, mentioned that the government had allocated Rs1 lakh crore for the construction of several high speed highways.
Specific mention was made of the Delhi-Mumbai high-speed road corridor. Not only would the highway connect Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, it would also “reduce the road travel time between the two cities to just 12 hours, which at present takes about 25 hours.” 
He also said that the distance would shorten from 1,450km to 1,250km. For the distance of 1,250km to be covered in just 12 hours, a vehicle would have to drive nonstop at an average speed of 104km per hour (km/h), which is higher than the top speed legally allowed (100 km/h) on India’s expressways, most of which are speed restricted at a really underwhelming 80 km/h. Of course, this would be possible only if there is no traffic whatsoever, no stops, no pause for a coffee break, nothing. Yet, all the while at an illegal speed of 104km/h.
Realistically, the average speed will need to be 130 km/h, or more, if the overall average of 104km/h has to be maintained, after allowing for quick driver changes and coffee breaks. In Europe, where most countries have 130km/h as the speed limit on highways, the thumb rule calculation to get to a destination is to count an hour for every 100kms. Thus, the distance between Paris to Bordeaux, which is an exact 500km, is doable in around five hours, if there is no traffic getting out of Paris, or getting into Bordeaux.
The current government had been talking about upping the speed limit to 120km/h, which may still not be enough for people to get from Delhi to Mumbai in 12 hours.
For now though, the fastest way to get to Mumbai from Delhi without flying, is the Rajdhani Express, which takes 16 hours and 10 minutes to cover the 1,384kms.
Some very skilled (and brave) drivers I know of have taken an hour or two more than the Rajdhani. I am not aware of any one amongst the people I know in India, who has taken less time than India’s fastest train.      
Yet, on 1 December 1977, a car with two people covered the distance of 1,450-plus kilometres between Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay then), from India Gate all the way to the Nariman Point, in less than 12 hours! That’s an average speed of over 120 km/h. Which would imply that the car was travelling at mostly 160 km/h, and perhaps reaching speeds of 180, maybe 200 km/h in patches.
“The car’s top speed was about 230 km/h, and there were times when we must have been doing over 200 km/h,” explained, via email, the driver of the car that day, Sobieslaw Zasada.
(Sobieslaw Zasada)
It was not a case of Delhi belly, which had had them fleeing at such speed: it was the second running of the London-Sydney Rally, which was passing through India. Sixty-nine cars took the start on 14 August 1977, in London, and an Indian, from Bombay, Dr Bomsi Wadia was among them, in a Ford Lotus Cortina. 
The winner of the first London-Sidney (from 1968), Andrew Cowan was back, behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 280E. Several of the veterans of the first marathon were back too: Paddy Hopkirk, Giancarlo Baghetti and Polish rallying ace Sobieslaw Zasada.  
Zasada was in the lead in a Porsche 911 Carrera when the rally arrived in India. Though it has been more than four decades since Zasada and his navigator Wojciecj Schramm competed, 90-year-old Zasada clearly remembers the run from the Pakistan border to Delhi, and then to Mumbai. 
Relating his experience to Grzegorz Chmielewski (and translated by Aleksandra Kasztelewicz) on behalf of this writer, Zasada remembered, “We spent a few hours in the hotel (it was probably the Hilton), and on 1 December, at 1:35am, we set off on the competitive section to Bombay. The asphalt road was narrow, wavy, and alongside it, again millions of people. We were to arrive in Bombay on 1 December, at 18:00hrs, but we were there four and a half hours earlier. There was heavy traffic in the streets of Bombay, but the rally cars took priority, and the police helped us a lot and did a great job.”
As Zasada mentioned, there may have been millions of witnesses… either way, the passage of Zasada in his Porsche must have been the stuff of legends… he was so quick, arriving at the time control in Mumbai so well ahead of time that the control set-up was not ready, and the marshals could not note the time of his arrival!
After Mumbai, the event curled south and east to Pune and Bangalore and then to Chennai, when the cars were shipped to Penang, in Malaysia. Until then, Zasada was leading, but an accident in Australia caused considerable loss of time, with the Polish rally star finishing a sad 13th. Once again, the slower, but steadier Andrew Cowan won the London-Sydney, in a Mercedes.
(Author of several automotive books, founder editor of many leading auto mags, Gautam Sen has also consulted with most of the Indian auto majors. He has also worked with several leading car designers such as Gérard Godfroy, Tom Tjaarda and Marcello Gandini, among others.)
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