RAC Rally Preview - Rallyman's Radar

This year for the very first time, advance reconnaissance of the RAC Rally's forest stages will be allowed, and the use of pace notes during the event itself. GP explains the origin of pace notes and how they differ from other notes.

Rallyman's Radar

Listen to some people and you might be persuaded that Pace Notes is the name given to some mystic chant employed by elite navigators to squeeze an extra few mph from their drivers. But there's no mystery about pace notes. They are simply a means of describing a section of road in a way which can be committed to paper in abbreviated form, then read back at a precise rate related to the speed of the car so that the driver knows what is around the next corner, or over the next crest, before he gets there.

The only mystique about such notes is that which has been given to them by people who think they know what they are all about, but don't. To understand them, it is first necessary to appreciate lesser forms of notes, which we will call Navigation Notes and Hazard Notes.

Lowest in the scale are navigation notes, and these are what you will find in a roadbook issued by rally organisers. They are simply a means of logging which way a driver should turn at junctions, and are related to distances recorded by trip meters. They do not indicate bend severities, cambers or whether a road veers one way or another after a crest.

Hazard notes are one step up the scale of usefulness. In addition to navigational information, they also include details of such things as bad holes, extra sharp corners, steep drops and the like, so that information on danger spots can be read out to drivers with the navigation information. Like navigation notes, they are based on distances and/or fixed geographical features, and fall down when trip meters are rendered useless due to error or wheelspin, or when visibility is so poor that fixed objects cannot be identified until they are actually reached. Pace notes provide the refinement which hazard notes cannot possibly achieve. They are based not on distances or fixed objects but on a continuous "talk-down" which covers all driver activity. They relate to all of road, not just the hazardous bits, and the system is rendered fail-safe by the continuity of the flow of information.

Distances and locations of identifiable features may be added for good measure, but the basis of pace notes is continuity. The navigator reads at a speed exactly related to the speed of the car, pacing himself so that when a driver is about to negotiate a particular hazard, he is told of the next following hazard at precisely the right time he wants that information. Too soon would be to clutter his mind with information he doesn't need for another split second or two; too late would be, well, too late!

On a very twisty section, a navigator may be reading quite fast; on a straighter one he would have a little more time to take breath, although even on straights there is information to impart in order that each hazard is precisely linked to the next, and the next, and so on. A very slight corner coming after a hairpin would present little danger, but a hairpin coming suddenly after a fast but blind bend is a real hazard. Both situations have to be logged, and read back.

Bends, crests and other hazards are not the only important features. Distances between them are also vital, particularly in foggy conditions. Distance is not really the correct word to use, for when describing a straight between two bends many drivers prefer to be told a figure relating to the degree of acceleration they can employ, rather than the actual distance.

Thus a 50-yard straight between a fast bend and a crest might be described as a "25", whereas the same straight coming after a hairpin would almost certainly be a "50" or even a "100". The higher the figure, the greater the amount of acceleration that can be applied before braking for the next hazard.

Continuous reading of notes provides a steady flow of information, not the jerky type associated with tripmeter-based hazard notes. Some of the data read out may be unnecessary, but the unbroken reading means that the driver is always aware of what lies ahead, whether it is tricky or otherwise, and he does not have to wait for trip readings or look out for a "split oak tree on the left"! It also helps him get to know his navigator and to have confidence in him, for mutual trust is vital if pace notes are to work. As he reads, the navigator should also be glancing through the windscreen to relate what he sees on paper to what he sees ahead. He should also be thinking as his driver thinks, asking himself, "If I were driving, what would I want to know at this precise moment?"

Of course, personal preferences count a great deal, and what might be fine for one driver may result in total disaster for another, which is why we disagree entirely with organisers providing competitors with ready-made pace notes, no matter how good the people who made them.

The language of notes is a sub-topic in itself. Short words are better than long ones avoided in order to lessen the chances of confusion. "Slight" is too close to "right", for instance, whereas "no" and "go" can be very easily confused.

English is rich in suitable monosyllables, and it happens to be the language used by many foreign crews. We have used notes in French, Swedish and English, and refined with ice notes those made in Italian and Finnish. Unquestionably, English versions are more punchy and definite, although again personal preference is what counts, and if a driver is so unfamiliar with English that he has to mentally translate each instruction then he would be better off using his own language, no matter how long the words. In this respect, the driver's preference should count more than his navigator's, for the man at the wheel has less time for interpretation than his partner. In any case, for the driver it should be instinctive. Some crews use English notes even though it is the native language of neither. As an example, Arne Hertz (a Swede) reads notes in English to his driver Hannu Mikkola (a Finn).

Bend descriptions are the things which probably vary the most from driver to driver. Some grade them by numbers according to severity, whilst others prefer to use descriptive words. Björn Waldegard, for instance, uses a system of numbers (in English) from one to seven, whilst our own preference, having been taught by Vic Elford, was always for words.

How did these pace notes begin. They were really the product of professionalism among works teams eager to gather as much advantage as possible in the quest for publicity-catching victories. And if rally routes were announced in advance, why not drive over them and note the difficult spots? But they did not appear overnight. They evolved gradually, and we are happy to record that, like many other things, they were a British invention.

A system of notes was used on the famous "toilet roll" of Denis Jenkinson when he partnered Stirling Moss to victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia. But he did not read his notes; he converted them into hand signals. The car was too noisy for reading, and they did not have the refinement of an intercom. In any case, Jenks maintains (but we disagree) that a driver concentrating at 100% is oblivious to everything else and would not react to notes being read to him. Hence the arrangement whereby he stuck his hand in front of Moss' face whenever necessary, and made the appropriate gestures.

But Jenks' notes were more hazard notes than pace notes, for there was no continuous flow of information, which would have been impossible to pass on using hand signals. Pace notes came some years later, and the man we have to thank for developing them and coining the expression is Tony Ambrose.

Having been a club competitor for some years, and a member of the Oxford University Motor Drivers Club, the young Ambrose was so surprised in 1959 to learn that all three works Austin-Healey 3000s in the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally had been time-barred after wrong-slotting that he wrote to Marcus Chambers offering his services. To his equal surprise, he was invited to join Chambers and Peter Riley (whom he had known since 1953) for lunch at the Motor Show, after which he was invited to join the team as a co-driver as often as he could make himself available, sharing his services between Peter Riley and Alick Pitts.

In November that year, Riley and Ambrose drove an 850cc Mini in the Portuguese Rally, but just went in blind, without a recce, and came nowhere. After the rally, with Pat Moss, Ann Wisdom, Nancy Mitchell and Pat Ailson, they drove from Lisbon to Chambery where they met John Gott, Tommy Wisdom, John Sprinzel and others who had flown from Britain. Erik Carlsson was also there, and Ambrose recounts with a grin the tale that he (Carlsson) and Sprinzel fought on the first floor landing of their hotel for the favours of Pat Moss!

Recce commenced in the morning, but this was only to make navigation notes. In any case, a day starting at 10am, finishing at 6pm and divided by a three hour lunch didn't leave much time for thorough note making. In the January, the team performance in the event was indifferent, and on their return John Gott wrote that "recceing is an expensive waste of time." Marcus Chambers agreed, circulated a document to that effect to all crews, whereupon Ambrose protested bitterly that good results would never be achieved without a recce.

Riley and Ambrose were together in an Austin A105 for the Tulip Rally of 1960. They made no recce but were given some sort of notes, supposedly exclusive to BP users, to supplement the roadbook. They considered them useless, and during the night ferry crossing from the Hook of Holland sat down and produced an embryo of what they considered should form the basis of special stage notes. As a direct result of the discussion during that sea crossing, the face of rallying was soon to change.

Their next rally was the Acropolis, which they again tackled without a recce. They were going reasonably well when their AH 3000 shot off the road on a tightening right-hander and fell off what appeared to be the edge of the world. Fortunately, both Riley and Ambrose were thrown out as the car went over. Later, Ambrose joined Pitts for the Alpine Rally in a Mini, again with no recce and again with indifferent results.

In July of that year, Ambrose wrote a long letter to Marcus Chambers expressing the futility of entering cars in the forthcoming Liege Rally unless someone did a thorough navigational recce. This was particularly important, for the event of that year was breaking new ground in Yugoslavia, where the best available map scale was one to half a million.

Ambrose also suggested that they should try to make PACE NOTES, distinct from navigation notes, and enclosed a précis of the understanding which he and Riley had reached during that May sea crossing from Holland. After their Acropolis accident, Riley and Ambrose felt very strongly that the tightening right-hander which caught them out was just the sort of thing which should be recorded in pace notes. Thus the expression originated.

A recce was grudgingly sanctioned, and they were given seven days and an elderly Austin to make navigation notes for the whole team. This they did, also choosing the section from Novi to Ogulin, in northern Yugoslavia, to make the first pace notes. The road swept through a pine forest where there were precious few geographical features, so the constant narrative method was used to ensure continuity and to pin-point the bends which tightened and those which opened.

Due to lack of time, they were only able to make three passes over the stage, but were more than satisfied during the rally itself and were holding fifth place through northern Italy when the engine blew up.

Two days of recceing prior to the German Rally was not enough, although they managed "once-over" notes for some sections and subsequently won their class, beating several of the fancied Porsches.

By this time, both Riley and Ambrose had developed a degree of confidence in their note system, and Riley's response to the instructions convinced them both that the system was sound, and would improve. In January, 1961, the Riley/Ambrose partnership was to tackle the Monte in an Austin A40, and they were given a similar car for their first real recce, spanning about ten days in the December.

By that time, Chambers had begun to take an interest in pace notes and was suggesting that Riley and Ambrose should pass them on to the rest of the team. Their reluctance to do so was interpreted as selfishness, which was quite unfair. Having perfected their notes, they knew that they were very personal and could be highly dangerous if used by someone to whom they were unfamiliar. They also felt that, even if the system could be modified so that it could be passed on to others, that stage of development had not been reached.

Over the next few months a great evolution took place. There were arguments over which words to use, discussions on symbols, timing, reading and all manner of other things. It is to their credit that they made the system work, that it rapidly caught on and that, thirty years later, it has become a fundamental requirement for anyone who aims for success in rallying.

The question whether pace notes make you faster is easy to answer. Of course they do. Whether they make you safer is another matter. On a road unaffected by sudden storms or landslides, and avoided by wandering goats and ox-carts, all things that can never be shown in pace notes, the theory is that safety will go hand-in-hand with speed. However, think of it this way. Make an error of judgement without notes and you will go off the road. Make a small error with notes and you may still go off the road — but faster! GP