The navigator: The man who has been in the co-driver’s seat in 289 rallies

Nitin Sharma

SJOBA Rally will be the 290th in the career of navigator Musa Sherif. (Source: Nitin Sharma)

As the rally drivers competing in the 33rd edition of SJOBA Rally started their cars for a round in the parking of St John's School, co-driver and navigator Musa Sherif, 48, was busy observing the trendy vehicles with an eye on the route navigation notebook. A participant in 289 rallies and co-winner of 19 rallies in India and abroad, Sherif is one of the most experienced navigators in Asia and will be plotting the route for last year's winner Samrat Yadav in the 290th rally of his 28-year-long career.

Dwelling on the ingredients of a good partnership at the wheels, he said, “Trust and confidence in each other are the two things which are required between the driver and the navigator for any rally. The driver completely trusts the navigator and has blind confidence in his call. Yes, the limelight is always on the driver but the navigator too stands on the podium and that's what keeps me going.”

A native of Kasargod in Kerala, Sherif got hooked to rallying in 1993 when he competed in the Mandovi rally organised by Karavali Auto Sports Club at Mangalore. Two years on, he was signed by Team MRF and navigated for Satish Bhat till 1997 before he joined Team JK Tyre for three years. Sherif would then don the Team MRF colours from 2001 to 2012 before moving to Mahindra Adventure team a year later.

The last 28 years have seen Sherif navigate for 47 different rallyists in India and Asia. It has been a fruitful ride with Sherif pocketing six Indian National Rally Championship (INRC) titles with Gaurav Gill and one INRC title with Zuhin. Internationally, he bagged four big titles -- Asia Cross Country with Lohit Urs, Malaysian Rally Group N with Arjun Rao, Malaysian Rally Championship with Sanjay Takle, and UAE Rally Championship with Saneem.

Having been the co-driver to 47 different rallyists, Sherif has also adjusted to different call signs of different drivers. “Like every different car, every driver is different and the navigator's first task is to understand his style of driving. I competed in 35 international rallies with Sanjay Takle and his style of driving was way different from Gaurav Gill, with whom I have won six NRC titles. For some drivers, there are 10-12 call signs for corners while for Gill, there are 18 signs for corners. We have made our short-cuts too in terms of call signs and 1 right is the slowest corner and 6 right is the fastest corner. We have to tell the driver things like entering the corner late or early or left or right studying the notes with the car shaking at more than 150KPH,” Sherif laughs.

Sherif has seen several highs and lows. Last year, he and his driver Gaurav Gill were involved in an untoward incident in the Jodhpur rally when three persons, who had accidentally made their way into the rally route, died after Gill's car crashed into them during the first leg. While Gill was initially booked under IPC 304A, Rajasthan Police dropped the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and Gill was granted bail. “It was an unfortunate incident that took place because the organisers did not follow the rules. The rally drivers follow the route and since we were the first car to go, our aim was to build a lead and unfortunately, the incident happened on the rally route. It took us several days to get over the trauma,” shares Sherif.

This ace navigator has seen several changes in the rallying over the years. “Over the years, cars have become more powerful; there has been tremendous technical advancement and I have to remain updated at all times. Competing in Malaysia, he says, was a big challenge because of its terrain. “In UAE, I was co-driving with Saneem when our car toppled at one stage, but we won the title. I also rate 2018 title in NRC as the most satisfying win of my career,” beams Sherif, whose favourite rallying car is Subaru Impreza.

Sherif also finds the SJOBA rally challenging with its course running through both plains and the Shivalik hills in Punjab. “The terrain is completely different from other rallies in the country. Some stages are very tricky with river beds and slushy conditions.”

Sherif has one advice for aspiring navigators. “Spend time with experienced navigators and see videos of rallies. Also go through the route multiple times to understand the task of a navigator. Last but not the least, make it a habit to check the safety equipment even during practice.’’