Stage direction

The co-driver’s role has grown as the pace of modern rallying has increased, as John Davenport explains

The sons of Noah, so we are told, built the Tower of Babel. The result of their efforts was to cause all the different languages of the world to be created and today there may be as many as 4,500 of them. Pace notes are nowhere near as old or as diverse but they do have a history.

It all started, as far as one can tell, when rallying revived after WWII. Cars had become faster and there was a growing emphasis on speed tests where every second counted. Before long, drivers were beginning to find that in a rally of a couple of thousand kilometres there were more bends that needed remembering than their memory banks could cope with. Suddenly, rallying entered its Neanderthal period. Anyone who is old enough to have been taken on a motoring holiday may remember that as the family saloon puffed and wheezed its way up some Alpine road, the trees, walls and signs were daubed with various stripes of woad. These were not attempts to bring the art of the cave dweller into the open air, but were indications to the driver of a rally car as to the nature of the next bend. A colour or the number of stripes would tell him what he wanted to know.

These were, of course, a continental invention. We British, with our cynical belief that only we indulged in fair play, looked upon them in amazement for the simple reason that one chap coming along afterwards with a selection of paints could rather spoil your rally. We much preferred to rely on something that was written down and carried in the car rather than painted on the scenery. Thus during the 1950s, the works teams of BMC and Rootes would send out one crew to prepare detailed notes with information about certain bad bends as well as junctions, petrol stations and the odd three-rosette restaurant.

But it was not until the Mille Miglia of 1955 that pace notes moved into the limelight. Shorter than a major rally at a mere 1,624 km, the difference here was that all of that mileage was competitive for the simple reason that it was a race. Most of the top drivers practised on the route and Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson,Motor Sport’s grand prix correspondent, were no exceptions. But they brought a new method to the task. DSJ made copious notes during their practice runs using Moss’s own 220A saloon as well as a brace of 300S LRs. The idea was to be able to inform Moss of what he was not able to see for himself They identified hidden hazards such as bends that looked flat out but were not. At the same time, they noted places where Moss could keep his foot down, for example over blind brows, where otherwise he would have lifted off because his memory was uncertain.

All these notes covering the entire route were transcribed by DSJ onto rolls of paper. Moss commissioned a neat little alloy and perspex box with two knobs to turn the rollers so that the current section of the notes was visible through a window. This was held on DSJ’s lap in his right hand while he used his left to indicate the instructions to Moss. There were no intercoms back then and the 300SLR was running on open side exhausts.

With no odometer in front of him, DSJ’s notes were based around landmarks, the most common and useful of which were the kilometre stones that lined the main roads. Using hand signals ruled out any great complexity. The most important thing, which is still true today, was that DSJ should not lose the synchronisation between where he was on the notes and where the car was. Thus the notes often included things like: ‘Keep going to village, trattoria on right, LEFT at fork’. The left bend at the junction would have been worthy of note when you are averaging almost 100mph while the location of the trattoria, useful during recce, confirmed that you were at the right place.

The British pair’s win on that most famous of road races and the method of attaining it attracted enormous publicity. It is not surprising therefore to discover that Tommy Fjastad when he won the East African Safari in 1962 had written his route and hazard notes on rolls and hung a replica of the DSJ ‘viewer’ under the odometer in his Volkswagen. The wider effect was to increase the number of rally crews taking their practice seriously and developing the shorthand necessary to give a consistent result.

At first, with the invention of reliable, adjustable odometers, there was a branch of thought that relied on this new technology to create pace notes. The trip would be zeroed at an easily recognisable point and then used to measure the distance to the hairpin or the flat-out blind brow. As with the Mille Miglia notes, permanent features of the landscape would be added in to reinforce the accuracy of the road image. On European rallies, these were used on special stages and difficult road sections, particularly on the Coupe des Alpes with its infinity of selectives or on the -Liège-Sofia-Liège with its non-stop pressure. It was even more popular in Africa where on a route in excess of 5,000km, the variety of hazards was much greater than in Europe. Much easier to say something really descriptive at a given mileage such as: ‘Caution mud hole, turn left into bush just before and keep right of baobab tree before turning back on road.’

The problem on both continents was that even the best odometers found it difficult to repeat the exact mileage with the rally car that had been measured with the recce car. For a start, there was wheelspin, though that could be tackled by running the odometer from a non-driven wheel. In South Africa, before electronic sensors, they used to do this by running a Bowden cable outwards from the centre of a front wheel, under the bonnet, and through the bulkhead to the odometer. When Scandinavian drivers first arrived to do the Total Rally in the early 1970s, it was soon discovered that their habit of using the entire road right up to the trees was not compatible with having a working odometer. But on really long sections, the poor co-driver soon discovered that small errors were soon multiplying into large ones. After a couple of hundred kilometres, the tyre wear alone was probably enough to throw the call on a bad bend out by at least a hundred yards.

It was wholly inadequate for dealing with special stage rallies where stretches of anything from 10 to 30 kilometres of road had to be known very accurately if it was to be driven flat out. The solution was to write down a continuous commentary on the road with different grades for the bends and also a note of the distance between them. At one stroke, this removed dependence on unreliable external information — provided that the co-driver did not make an error. In fact, what it did was to promote the co-driver from relaying principally cautionary information to being a positive contributor to making fast times. It took almost 10 years before the habit caught on for long sections on African rallies but when it did, it had a major effect on the speed of the Europeans.

Nothing is as quickly copied as a success and before one could say ‘Monte Carlo’ just about everyone was using some form of written pace notes. And like the proliferation that followed the Tower of Babel, there were soon all kinds of languages and dialects being used. One method was the descriptive where the notes set out to describe the geometrical severity of a corner. A ‘fast right’ would be where the approach and the exit to the bend were at, say, 20 degrees, and a ‘medium right’ would be at 80 degrees. This kind of note requires the driver to factor in the prevailing conditions such as rain, snow, gravel or even a dry road and then drive the corner accordingly.

The use of subjective notes where the corner is graded on the speed at which it can be taken, or in some cases the gear in which it can be driven, requires caution and a few mental gymnastics if conditions are substantially different from those of the recce. A further disadvantage can be that in order to have good subjective notes, one needs to practice in a competitive car at competitive speeds. In the 1970s, when two months was a normal recce period for a works crew on a Monte Carlo Rally, the opportunity to try stages at rally speech did exist provided you didn’t mind sleeping in the daytime. But with today’s World Rally Championship allowing just two slow speed runs to make and check the notes, this is simply not possible.

Variation in pace note systems is enormous and the languages have expanded to try to cope with ever-faster cars and the need to help the driver find the best line. In the 1960s, the number of grades for bends was generally somewhere between five and eight, going, for example, from ‘flat’ to ‘slight’ to ‘fast’ to ‘by’ to `medium’ to ‘bad’ to ‘hairpin’. The desire always was to keep the words short and unique, hence the introduction — by Vic Elford — of `kay’ which stood for a bend that turned through about 60 degrees.

The English language proved to be popular in that most of its descriptive words were monosyllabic. Anyone who has watched in-car WRC coverage will realise that Mediterranean languages use a lot more to describe a lot less. The Italian for ‘slight left’ is `piu piu velocissime sinistra’ — two syllables versus nine. To overcome this drawback, many continentals swapped to a mathematical approach and graded their bends by numbers. This is by far the most common usage today, but care has to be taken not to confuse the grading of bends with the distances in between them. And, with the perversity of the human race, some grade their most severe bend as a ‘one’ and go to ‘nine’ as flat out while others do the opposite.

Soon there were additions to make to all of these systems. A simple bend is just a ‘fast right’. But if it goes on longer it could become a ‘long fast right’. It could tighten or indeed open. It could become altogether another bend. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, drivers began to see that a longer corner could actually be made up of several apexes. Achim Warmbold was one of the pioneers of a system that recognised this and his notes, originally in German but later in English, were quite complex. What might earlier have been called as a ‘long fast right’ was for him ‘right 80 to 70 inside to 90’. At the time, this was unique in that it was a number system in which the direction of the comer preceded the severity, bigger numbers meaning faster corners. The instruction ‘inside’ meant much the same as ‘cut’ might in English notes, encouraging an early apex to run the front wheel over a piece of the scenery. The upswing to complexity was made possible by the universal introduction of intercoms.

And to all these note systems had to be added crests and jumps and kerbs and straights, not to mention the links such as ‘and’, ‘into’ and ‘after’. The evolution of modern pace notes has been as fast and as furious as the cars themselves. Co-drivers like Robert Reid have a responsibility to deliver the notes to their drivers at just the right moment — and that can vary enormously, he says, with the driver and with the conditions. “Richard [Burns] wants to be told the next bend in just that second before he thinks ‘I wonder what’s coming up?’ For that reason, I go on every test session with him as well as the recce and the rally so that I know when that moment is. It also helps Richard during testing as he doesn’t have to think about the road — just what we are testing.” Achieving that level of communication takes time, which is why long-standing driver/co-driver partnerships are now the rule.

Certainly pace notes have brought a higher level of commitment by the drivers that has, over the years, lent much to the spectacle of the WRC. The cars go faster and any accidents that occur are not down to ignorance of the road ahead. Since recce restrictions were introduced, notes, and the skills needed to produce them from two runs over a stage in a recce car backed by a last minute check by the gravel note crews, have become more important still. And there has not been any lessening of either the spectacle or of safety. But now, in a political move spun as a cost-saving measure, the crews are going to be required to make notes from just two runs over the stages in a rally car, with gravel crews banned. The rally car suspension will ensure that notes have to be hastily re-written overnight and the lack of a last check for changes will render the notes more vulnerable to error. As Reid puts it: “There is so little room for error. The WRC is popular because the drivers are so committed, but that is only because accurate pace notes allow them to be. One tiny fault and you can be looking at a big crash.”

Cost reduction is important but notebooks, recce cars and gravel crews are relatively cheap. Extra events, limitless testing and runaway electronic complexity are what really cost, and it is these that will discourage new manufacturers from joining the WRC. Indeed, it may even lose us some of those that we have.